Bert Thomas was Tacoma’s Babe Ruth of open water swimming, making two cold water distance swims in the mid 1950’s that still seem humanly impossible today. On July 8th, 1955, on his fifth attempt in the 45 degree waters, Bert crossed the Straits of Juan De Fuca from Port Angeles to Victoria. He was the first person to make the extreme swim of 18.3 miles and he did it without a wetsuit in a little over 11 hours and twenty minutes.
Bert was an awkward hero, a top heavy ex-marine frogman who weighed 275 pounds, was bald before he turned 30 and had a bad habit of wearing loud plaids to overcome his shyness. At 11:30 in the morning on May 14, 1956 he plunged into the 46 degree sound at Fauntleroy Cove for the longest swim of his life, from West Seattle to Tacoma. His wife Marion and daughter Sharon followed along in an escort vessel, as Bert relentlessly churned away with a steady side stroke and powerful leg kick. The tide turned against him just as the sun set and then about 10;30 he cleared Dash Point and began a second fight against the outflow of the Puyallup River as he crossed Commencement Bay. Every hour he pulled up, treading water so Marion could feed him warm soup through a tube. Then she passed him a lit cigarette that he smoked on his back before rolling back into his slow determined side stoke. In the cold water darkness Bert no doubt recalled his first February attempt at the swim that lasted less than 2 hours. In April just a month before Bert had failed at a second attempt after 9 hours in the water coming up just 6 miles short.
Now he could see the lights of Tacoma and bonfires burning on the beach near Old Town Dock and finally, at 3:05 a.m. on May 15th Bert Thomas’ feet touched the sandy bottom near the modern day Chinese Reconciliation Park. It had taken him 15 hours and 23 minutes to reach Tacoma, a distance of just under 20 miles. A crowd of 5000 people were there to witness the end of the swim and the singer Helen O’Connell, who happened to be in town, was there to give him a victory kiss. Bert went on to swim the English Channel the next year and then come home to enjoy his local celebrity status. People recognized him out at the B&I Circus and kids asked for his autograph at the new Cheney Stadium in the early 1960’s. He was like ET. Bert Thomas died of a heart attack in 1972. He was only 46 years old.

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