Widow Of Columbus Man Says He Completed Cuba To Florida Swim Fir - NBC4: Columbus, Ohio News, Weather, and Sports (WCMH-TV)

Widow Of Columbus Man Says He Completed Cuba To Florida Swim First

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© Grove City native Walter Poenisch was first man to complete Cuba to Florida Swim in 1978 © Grove City native Walter Poenisch was first man to complete Cuba to Florida Swim in 1978

While the world celebrates marathon swimmer Diana Nyad's historic swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida, a Central Ohio woman said her husband completed the same journey nearly 35 years ago.

Faye Poenisch, widow of Walter Poenisch, said her husband completed the same swim at the age of 68. Walter Poenisch began marathon swimming at the age of 49. A baker and rodeo man by trade, Walter bet a restaurant owner in Jamestown, New York, that he could beat him.

"Walter didn't know it, but the gentleman who actually took up the wager was a former Olympic swimmer," remembers Faye. " He defeated Walter by a body length and said, 'For a cowboy, you're a hell of a swimmer.'"

It was the first of Walter's many open water swims in Michigan, Ohio, and Florida. But it was his swim from Cuba to The Little Duck Key, Florida, that was his crowning achievement.

"From 1963 to 1978, everything Walter Poenisch did in the way of swimming was predicated on the day he would get the approval to make the Cuba to Florida swim," said Faye.

It was a momentous occasion made even more special by the presence of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Walter set out from Havana on July 11, 1978. He completed the 128.8 mile swim in 34 hours and 15 minutes. He used a shark cage and took breaks while fighting multiple jellyfish stings.

"He was so out of it when he finished. But swimming was automatic for Walter and that's how he was able to keep going," said Faye.

But Walter's swim was overshadowed. Faye claims the media was focused on a young Diana Nyad, who announced her intentions to make the same swim. Faye said Nyad and the International Swimmer's Hall of Fame slandered and libeled her husband. The Poenischs sued. It took four and a half years before both parties retracted their statements about Walter.

Faye said she did not watch Nyad tackle the Cuba to Florida swim Monday.

"As far as I'm concerned, she helped destroy my husband's life," Faye said through tears.

For his efforts, Walter Poenisch is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records from 1980-2000. He died June 6, 2000 after a ten-year battle with seizures caused by an arterial venous malformation of the brain left his left side paralyzed.

Faye said that before he died, Walter became less interested in his record swim and more about his relationship with God.

"In the final years of his life, that's all he really wanted to talk about," said Faye.

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