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The Legacy Of The Parsons

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach.

In 2017, Valerie Parsons was invited to join the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame selection panel.

It has been several years since Parsons has been in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame limelight – or even the swimming community as she once was. Previously in 2004, she and her husband Roger Parsons were jointly honored by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame with the Irving Davids-Captain Roger Wheeler Memorial Award.

In 1989, the Parsons were inducted as Honour Administrators in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Valerie’s journey to the open water swimming world began at the age of 11.

Between 1966 and 1971, she specialized in sprint to middle-distance freestyle in Staffordshire County and the Midland District where she set many records. In 1967, she represented her native Great Britain in a dual meet against the USA at Crystal Palace London in the 440-yard freestyle.

By 1971, she was making an impact on the British Long Distance Swimming Association scene. She swam three long distance championships, winning them all while setting records including at the ASA 5 mile at Trentham where only the overall men’s winner beat her by 90 seconds. During this time, she was still fast enough in the pool to finish seventh in both the 200m and 400m freestyles at the British National Championships.

In 1972, she really started to come into her own, winning 14 long distance championships in the UK where she set eight records. In six of the races, she finished first overall, beating all the men.

By 1973, she started her role in administration when she was elected to the National Executive committee of the British Long Distance Swimming Association while winning 11 of 13 long distance championships in the UK, including winning two overall, finishing second in two, and setting five more records.

This year, she competed in her first international race, the 3 km Sluis Holland (5th of 64), 4.5 km Damme-Brugge (2nd of 39) for which she was selected and put on a shortlist for the Walsall Sports Personality of 1973. After the public vote, she was runner up to a famous football personality.

In 1974, she was elected as British Long Distance Swimming Association International Secretary. “I found it frustrating that there seemed to be no international coordination of what long distance swimming races were being organized around the world, and even more annoying – that were was this uncrossable divide between amateur swimmers and their events, and the professional swimmers and their events.

My dream and passionate hope was to see that divide banished and all swimmers be able to compete openly and equally against one another – and that eventually we would see open water swimming in the Olympic Program.

So I started to compile a comprehensive list of all open water swimming events around the world and share this information back to everyone. I also took the FINA handbook and wrote to all of the Member Federations with a questionnaire asking if they were running events, would they send full information, and if entries would be welcome from swimmers from other nations.

She also asked all event organizers and governing bodies if they would be interested to attend a meeting or forum if one were organized. “I wanted to try and get national governing bodies of swimming to acknowledge open water swimming within their national programs and break down the existing barriers,” she explained.

In many countries, it was forbidden for amateur swimmers to compete in professional events that offered prize money or that were not organized or sanctioned by the national governing body. They could lose their amateur status and be banned.

I paid the membership fee for my father to become a member of the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation so I could receive by mail the information on the professional events and their organizers, so I would not endanger my amateur status.”

That year, she won 12 of 13 long distance championships in the UK, setting 3 more records. She set a new All Comers Record for the individual course Double Solent (UK) Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight and back in 3 hours 21 minutes 4 seconds. Her international swims that year included victories in the 15 km Sea of Galilee Hapoel Games in Israel and 3 km Eilat Bay Hapoel Games in Israel, second in the 25 km Windermere International, and third in the 15 km River Ebro International in Spain. Her second place finish at the British Long Distance Swimming Association Windermere International was the first time a British male or female had earned a podium position at those championships.

She was presented with a Special Award from the Staffordshire County ASA in recognition of her outstanding record-setting swims. The Midland District ASA described Valeria as the ‘Bobby Charlton of swimming…the type of person who can set an example as a great sporting competitor.’

She was honored as the 1974 British Long Distance Swimming Association Swimmer of the Year in a career where she won 38 of the 43 races she entered, finishing second in three and was forced to retire from the other two. “My pride and joy of these years was that I managed to beat all of the men in 17 of the races.”

While she retired from competitive swimming due to business commitments, but she vigorously continued her administrative work and her worldwide quest in coordinating and compiling a worldwide list of open water swimming events. She passed along this invaluable information to everyone who was interested.

During the 1976 season, Valerie started the British Long Distance Swimming Association International Trials that has served as the British national team qualification race. Over the next five years, she served as the Organising Secretary until 1981 after which the results of the Champion of Champions event was used as the new criteria for any selection of swimmers for international representation.

She continued to give back to the sport in innumerable ways including serving as secretary of the Great Britain Selection Committee, a post to which she was reelected each year until 1989.

In 1989, she and husband Roger Parson emigrated to Spain. Her legacy in Great Britain was set:

* she was unbeaten in all the masters age group events that she had ever competed in the UK
* she was also the only British swimmer to win the tidal (11-12 mile) Morecambe Cross Bay Championships five times from Grange over Sands to the Stone Jetty at Morecambe
* she was runner-up in the Miss Sportsworld competition at the Speedo headquarters in Nottingham
* she won two long distance championships in the UK and finished fifth in the 5 km Blankenberge Belgium and fourth in the 4.5 km Brugge Belgium in 1977
* she served as the Great Britain National Team Manager between 1977 and 1983, and at the 1986 FINA World Cup event in Egypt
* she organized the 1978 Windermere International 25 km championships
* she served on the organising committee at the 1982 and 1986 Windermere International 25 km championships which became the first FINA World Cup event
* she received the 1979 BLDSA James Brennan Award, the highest award that can be presented to an officer of the BLDSA for Outstanding Service to the Sport
* she was Secretary of the Silver Jubilee Committee during 1980
* she started and organized the all age-group International One Hour Postal Swim in 1981
* she received the BLDSA James Brennan Award with her husband Roger in recognition of their joint Outstanding Service to the Sport
* she became a Life Member of the BLDSA in 1986
* she was the president of the British Long Distance Swimming Association in 1986-1987

* she was Great Britain Team Manager at the 2nd FINA 25 km Long Distance Swimming World Cup in Egypt in 1986
* she organized the swimming section of the European Short Course Triathlon at Milton Keynes, England in 1987
* she attended the 25 km Long Distance Swimming Championships in Starigrad on Yugoslavia’s Hvar Island where the First LEN (Ligue Européenne de Natation) European open water swimming event was held in 1989
* she received a special Long Service Recognition Award by the British Long Distance Swimming Association in 1989

Apart from being a good fund raiser for the BLDSA, it was an excellent platform to publicise the association, and more importantly introduce long distance swimming to a much wider range of participants, and hopefully bring in new members to the association,” she explained. “We had over 1000 entries in that first year where I was the secretary and administrator from 1982 to 1986.

Roger and I proposed the manufacture of a limited edition of solid silver BLDSA medallions with beautiful blue enamelling detail. Each medallion was hallmarked, numbered, and presented with a certificate of authenticity. These were sold as a special commemorative souvenir to members of the BLDSA. 47 medallions were ordered and manufactured. A truly limited, and now very rare item within the Association.

Her talents were also culinary in nature. “In March 1982, the BLDSA held its Silver Jubilee Annual Dinner. I baked a special cake 30 cm x 15 cm in size, beautifully decorated with a complete raised icing map of Lake Windermere across the top, the badge of the BLDSA, silver medallions and swimmers around the edge.”

She recalled a new event, The Champion of Champions, masterminded by her husband Roger. “The idea was to solve the argument as to who was better – the fastest swimmers or the ones with the best endurance. It was made up of a series of three events on the same day, 5 miles, 3 miles and a 1-mile race with short gaps between each one.”

The duo ran a very successful event in the first year and the following six years until they emigrated to Spain.

They also started another new event in Sandwell near Birmingham as part of the Sandwell Sports Festival. “This was a 2-mile Championship with Junior, Senior and full Masters Category age group competitions.”

In 1984 and 1985, Valerie and Roger organized the swimming leg from England to France of the London to Paris Triathlon events from Marble Arch London to Dover on the first day, swimming in a relay from England to France on the second day, and cycling in relay from Cap Gris Nez to Rouen, then finally in team pursuit to Paris on the third day.

In 1986, she continued to branch out to multi-sports event and assisted Roger in organizing the swimming sections of the 1st London, the 1st Welsh, and the 1st Scottish Short Course Triathlon Championships.

1986 was an important year when the 1st FINA 25 km Long Distance Swimming World Cup event was held in Lake Windermere and she hosted the FINA Long Distance Swimming Commission for the FINA meetings. “At these meetings, and every meeting that Roger was involved in for the next 11 years, I was also there, diligently writing a precise record of all the discussions taking place – so that Roger would have complete freedom to participate in and fully contribute his knowledge and wisdom at this important time. The official minutes were compiled based on our written record.”

In 1989, Valerie resigned from all posts with the BLDSA due to her emigration to live in Spain.

Between 1989 and 1991, open water swimming was moving towards integration within the FINA World Championships. “Preparations for the long distance swimming event in the 1991 FINA World Championships were taking place. A trial 25 km race was held to test the proposed World championship course in the Swan River.

In May, on invitation of Lello Barbuto, president of the International Long Distance Swimming Federation, and organiser of the ILDSF World Championships Maratona del Golfo Capri-Napoli, we attended their championship. Representatives of La Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean and La Traversée Internationale du Lac Memphrémagog also attended plus representatives of the swimmers. We had a series of ad hoc meetings. At these meetings we were very impressed at the level of organization and dedication shown by the promoters attending.

This was where Roger put forward for consideration, a proposal that if the International Long Distance Swimming Federation and the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation were to amalgamate, then it may be possible to get FINA and the respective national governing bodies to agree to use the existing events as a World Series into which new national federation events could – over time – incorporate their own marathon events. At meetings in Canada in August, it was agreed that a World Series was practical and could be put together using existing ILDSF events. Roger made a full report to the FINA with recommendation that a pilot World Series take place starting in the summer of 1991.

It was at this point that we decided that a successful Open Water World Series could open the door for a rapid inclusion of Long Distance Swimming into the Olympic program either under the FINA general program or as a stand-alone sport.

After consultation with Dale Petranech, we agreed that this could also be a good way to accelerate Open Water Swimming as a national activity too.

We were so passionate after seeing such a momentous possibility for the future good and development of the sport, in our desire to see this come to fruition that we agreed to personally finance all of our travel costs to visit and share the vision, enthusiasm, attend meetings, assist and encourage each and every promoter and event, wherever they were in the world. It was an opportunity that could not be missed.

In 1991, I flew with Roger to Australia for the first FINA 25 km race held in the Swan River, Perth, as part of the FINA World Championships. Another step towards the Olympic dream.

At a seminar on Long Distance Swimming which took place in Perth, we offered to assist any national association to stage, organize or administrate for long distance swimming in their respective countries, without payment for their services. Two representatives from La Traversée Internationale du Lac Memphrémagog attended the seminar on Long Distance Swimming and in meetings afterwards they persuaded us to agree to go to Magog in the summer to attend their competitions.

Trevor Tiffany, Vice President of Swim Canada, approached to ask if we would come to Canada and for Roger to set up Long Distance Swimming in the Provinces as part of the Swim Canada programme and also, on behalf of Swim Canada, organize the 25 km Championships at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships to be held at Edmonton, Alberta in August 1991. Roger accepted the invitation to take on the post of organizer for Swim Canada’s Open Water Swimming program. He agreed to voluntarily help Swim Canada for a minimum of one year.

Roger organised the 25 km Championships for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships which was held at Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Canada. I assisted Roger and was a race official on the day.

We then continued traveling to other marathon events that were interested in discussing the possibilities of being part of a World Series competition. From Australia, we traveled to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and attended meetings with the Brazilian Swimming Federation, then to Salvador attending the marathon race there, then Argentina for the Maratón Acuática Internacional Santa Fe – Coronda and other meetings around the world.

We flew to Canada where we moved to Ottawa. Roger worked in the Swim Canada national offices, but a month later the committee of La TTraversée Internationale du Lac Memphrémagog with their event offices in Magog, offered free office space from where Roger could do his work for Swim Canada, and also work on the preparations for upcoming meetings.

In July 1991, the International Marathon Swimming Association was formed, incorporating the International Long Distance Swimming Federation and the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation.

Swimmers, coaches and race organizers around the world described the pair as two special people of absolute integrity who are devoted to the cause, who are incredibly hard working, and who can always be relied upon. They are totally independent, passionate in their endeavours to always fight for, and to do whatever they can that is only ever in the best interests of the swimmers, the promoters and the sport as a whole and who have no axes to grind either personally or politically.

Between 1991 and 1993, the pair continued to travel and work at every International Marathon Swimming Federation World Series event around the world.

Valerie was officially elected to the position of Administrative Secretary of the IMSA in Santa Fe, Argentina at the 1st General Meeting of the International Marathon Swimming Federation on January 31st 1992.

After returning to Magog, Canada in February 1992, we had to return to Spain where we continued our work running the IMSF and the World Series. We also attended the 4th FINA 25 km World Cup that was held in lac St-Jean.”

The husband-and-wife team was presented with a Special Recognition award by Swimming Natation Canada in recognition of their contribution to the development of the open water swimming program in Canada and their joint efforts to help organize a successful open water championship in the Pan Pacific Games on behalf of Swim Canada.

In 1993, FINA became involved for the next World Series which was staged under the title of FINA Marathon Swimming World Series 1993-1994. Roger was the Meet Director for all the FINA World Series events and I continued to assist whenever and wherever needed, including continuing to help calculate and compile updated current World Rankings after each and every event. Together with the President of IMSF Pierre Otis, we began working on an official handbook for the IMSA.

Through 1994 and 1996, we continued to travel to every World Series event and attend every General Meeting.”

In 1995, the first Marathon Swimming Handbook of the IMSA was published. In the message from the President Pierre Otis wrote, “I take the opportunity to thank the General Secretary Roger Parsons and Valerie Parsons who have invested a lot of energy to realize this guide. Their contribution has been precious during these years of change. Their professional and personal investment in the IMSA stays indissociable with the growth of the Association and its credibility in the world.

By 1996, FINA had become fully involved in the open water swimming events at its World Championships and the World Series. The FINA Bureau agreed to apply to the IOC to include open water swimming as part of FINA’s Olympic Swimming Program, and to our delight, this application was duly accepted in 2005.

After completely devoting their lives for over 20 years to the sport of open water swimming, supporting race promoters and the swimmers, the Parsons decided that it was time for them to retire from their administrative work. There were other enthusiasts who took over their legacy and continued the future development with their initial objectives now achieved.

I could now say that open water swimming was embraced as truly open; all swimmers compete equally against one another and open water swimming is now included as an event in the Olympic Games. It is a wonderful conclusion to the past.”

Copyright © 2008-2017 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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