Abdel Lateef Abu-Heif, Swimmer of the Century , history and all time
He is the long-standing champion of major world long-distance swimming races of the River Nile, the River Seine, Suez Canal, Mediterranean, the English Channel and Capri. That is Abdel- Lateef Abu-Heif, the Egyptian world swimmer whose name has resounded in the Florida hall of fame, US when he was awarded the best world swimmer of the 20th Century.
His competitors included two American swimmers; Gertrude Eddie Earl, first woman to cross the English Channel in 1926 and Benny Wayne, the miracle of US swimming.
However, given his outstanding record of achievements, he won the prize. This victory was no surprise as the international Swimming Federation selected Abu-Heef in 1963 as the best swimmer uncontested in history.
From Anfoushi to world peak
Abu-Heif, the hero of raging seas and calm lakes, has achieved this success not out of vacuum but rather through extended laborious efforts. The start was at Anfoushi, a popular district in Alexandria where he lived. Born on January 30, 1929, to a father who was a primary school teacher, he was the tenth of a dozen sons.
With this congested household, Abu-Heif resorted to the sea as a relief. At the age of 10, he won the national primary school championship in Alexandria. His coach Abdul-Fattah Helal discovered that this promising boy, who has an overwhelming love for the sea as well as a high endurance, could be a successor of Ishaq Helmi, the first Egyptian to cross the English Channel. Therefore, he arranged for him to move to Cairo where he was trained at al-Ahli Sporting Club at the hands of Abdel- Baqi Hasanein, a veteran world prize- winning swimmer.
Master of the seas
In 1951, Abu - Heif was catapulted fame, when at the age of 22 he managed to cross the English Channel along with the then-called River Nile crocodiles Marei Hamad and Hasan Abdel-Raheem. At that time, Farouq, then King of Egypt was in a visit to France where he met the three Egyptian swimmers.
The king asked every one to make a wish. Both Marei and Hasan, asked for a house and pilgrimage to the Holy Places each, while Abu-Heif asked to join the Sand Hurst Military Academy in Great Britain. The king kept his promise, and Abu - Heif joined the academy and graduated in 1955. It is interesting to note that the prominent commander Montgomery handed him his graduation certificate.
In 1953, Abu-Heif took part in the English Channel crossing race along with a number of Egyptian swimmers; Hilmi al-Maraghi, Abdel- Moneim Abdu, Moustafa Dawood and Fahmi Attallah. Abu-Heif was the only swimmer who could finish the race. Anyway, no one managed to make it but Abu-Heif, setting new record time of 13:45 hours.
When he came back to Egypt, he was given a popular and red-carpet welcome, and taken on the car of the then President Mohammad Naguib to the Revolutionary Command Council headquarters, where he was hailed as best ambassador of the nation.
With unrelenting, hard training running for 7 hours a day, Abu-Heif pursued accomplishments, taking part in all long-distance races. In 1955, he crossed the English Channel for the third time. He was widely acclaimed by the Egyptian media. He also was received several times and conferred the Decoration of the Republic by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Abu-Heif named his only son after President Nasser.
Best Swimmer in History
In 1963, Abu-Heif had to compete with Harry William, known as the Flying Dutchman, one of the greatest world long-distance swimmers in the Lake Ontario, Toronto race, where Abu Heif managed to outrun the legendary swimmer. Commenting on the great victory, French newspapers commented saying "William meets his Master".
In 1963, Abu-Heif recalls, that in the Montreal swimming race, he had to compete with other world famous champions. In this connection, he says, "It was a relay race and I had to alternate on an hourly basis with the famous Italian swimmer Julio Travello. After the second hour, he went to hospital and never returned and I had inevitably to swim alone for 30 hours in a row. All other competitors had withdrawn out of fatigue. This lengthy, violent and harsh race was never staged again. Following the race, I was awarded the title of the Best Long-Distance Swimmer in History by the International Swimming Federation".
Following this unprecedented victory, Egypt honored Abu-Heif, giving his name to a street and the storm beach at al-Anfoushi, Alexandria. President Gamal Abdul Naser granted Abu-Heif the Medal of Sports. Later, Abu-Heif managed to win world long-distance swimming championship four times in Italy.
In1963, he won the Lake Michigan race in US. In this race, Abu-Heif set a new record as he swam some 96 km in 33 hours in a row. After completing the race, American physicians hurried to take a blood sample from him, and to their surprise, they found out that his blood had not been frozen.
The champion as a human
The champion"s humane record is as outstanding as his accomplishment in sports. He assigned his English Channel prize of £ 1000 (then a real fortune) to the family of the British swimmer Mathew who drowned in 1954, while attempting to cross the Channel, unaccompanied.
He also assigned another prize to the French swimmer; George Valerie who was paralyzed while at the peak of his fame. Commenting, a French paper said, "What a generous Egyptian gift". At home, Abu-Heif made many contributions, including some for building a swimming pool for young hobbyists.
The hard decision
In 1966, Abu Heif decided to quit. According to Abu-Heif, it was the hardest decision he has ever taken. But President Gamal Abdul Nasser summoned the great swimmer, asking him to continue to represent Egypt. He then continued to reap international prizes until 1975. The last on the list was the Argentina long-distance race where he covered a distance of 250 km in 60 hours in a row. At the peak of his fame, at the age of 46, Abu-Heif resigned.
Abu-Heif calls for peace
During his last days ,he spent his time offering his experience to young swimmers. On the occasion of being awarded this prestigious prize, he called on all the world countries to join hands and work together for peace as President Mubarak is striving hard all over the world to achieve peace