Swim for Peace. July 11, 1978.

First Person To Swim From Cuba To Florida

On July 11, 1978, Walter Poenisch (pronounced pain-ish) celebrated his 65th birthday with Prime Minister Fidel Castro prior to embarking on his historic swim. Walter Poenisch became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, after he swam 128.8 miles in 34 hrs. 15 min. The swim ended on July 13, 1978, when he reached Little Duck Key, Florida. Many called Walter the granddaddy of ocean swimming. He set three world records: In 1972, he set the record for longest ocean swim of 90 3/4 miles in the Atlantic; in 1976, he set a record of 122 ½ miles for his bicentennial swim from the Florida Keys to the tip of the Florida peninsula; and the 1978 “Swim for Peace” from Cuba to the United States, all documented in the GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS. Walter also holds the record as the “World’s Strongest Endurance Swimmer” for such feats as towing 30-ton paddlewheel boats while swimming with his hands and feet shackled.

It took Walter fifteen years to gain the US Government and Castro’s approval to make his Cuba to Florida swim. The swim through the political bureaucracy to obtain approval led him to call it “Swim for Peace” or one man’s effort to bring two neighbors a step closer.

Walter had to defend his swim by filing a lawsuit against marathon swimmer Diana Nyad and others who called Poenisch a ‘cheat’ and a ‘fraud’. The lawsuit settlement out of court was over non-compliance with a Florida Statute not by Poenisch’s desire. He won a small monetary sum in 1983 and letters of retractions from Ms. Nyad, the International Swimming Hall of Fame and a public relations agent.

Faye Poenisch, Walter’s wife, coach, and caregiver wrote a manuscript shortly after the settlement of the lawsuit. She laid it aside. Walter’s health began to fail. Seizures caused by an arterial venous malformation of the brain left his left side paralyzed. Faye became a 24/7 caregiver for 10 years. Walter passed into eternal life on June 6, 2000, just a month from his 87th birthday. Faye began work at a law firm as a paralegal. Her manuscript has always been in the back of her mind. As she says, “Swim for Peace” when published will be Walter’s day in court.

Now with the renewed interest in a swim from Cuba to Florida from Ms. Nyad she hopes now is the time to release it.


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