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Record-Breaking Swimmer Penny Lee Dean Ends 22-Year Retirement for Benefit Swim

Penny Lee Dean never met Carly Rae Collard-Cottone, but it is in her memory that Dean, who holds 13 world records for long-distance swimming, is participating in a marathon swim for the first time in more than 20 years.

Dean, now a professor of physical education and the women’s swimming and water polo coach at Pomona College, is coming out of retirement to take part in Carly’s Crossing, a 26-mile swim across Lake Erie to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. The event is a fundraiser for Carly's Club, founded three years ago by Carly Rae Collard-Cottone, a New York girl who lost both parents to cancer and then was diagnosed with brain cancer herself. After a three-year battle with the disease, Carly died on Aug. 16, 2002. Carly’s Crossing is being held in her memory on Aug. 16, the first anniversary of her death.

“I’m proud to lend my support to Carly’s Crossing,” said Dean, who in addition to swimming is also coaching the event’s other marathon swimmers. “To be able to do something like this is important to me.”

Dean’s accomplishments are legendary in the world of long-distance swimming. She broke the record for crossing the English Channel by more than an hour. She sheared one-and-a-half hours off the mainland-to-Catalina-Island record, and then cut nearly seven hours off the round-trip mark. She twice set the world record for swimming 36,000 meters – about 20 miles – in a pool. Dean was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1996.

To put it in perspective, if Hank Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s career home-run record by the same margin that Dean broke the world record for crossing the English Channel, he would have had to hit an additional 223 home runs. Roger Bannister would have had to run a mile in 3:32, rather than slipping under the historic 4-minute mile barrier.

Dean was forced to give up competition in the early 1980s, when her doctors told her to stop all exercise. Years of swimming three to fifteen miles a day, six days a week in the ocean, and an additional three to five hours a day in the pool had taken a toll on her body, and injury and illness left her in constant physical pain, making it impossible for her to continue. But Dean didn’t leave the sport she loved. Dean is the women’s swimming and water polo coach at Pomona College, where first started coaching in 1978, after graduating from Pomona College in 1977.

In addition to coaching, Dean is the author of several books, including “Open Water Swimming: A Complete Guide for Distance Swimmers and Triathletes” and “How to Swim a Marathon.” Would-be marathon swimmers often contact Dean for advice, which is how Dean met Joe Zwierzchowski, a 42-year-old swim coach from New York. Zwierzchowski was a friend of Carly’s and he conceived of Carly's Crossing. Earlier this year, he e-mailed Dean to ask for some tips. Once Dean learned more about what Zwierzchowski was doing, she offered to coach him.

Zwierzchowski and two members of the State University of New York at Buffalo women's swim team plan to swim across Lake Erie from Dunkirk, New York, to Ridgeway, Ontario, Canada. The three main swimmers will be accompanied by 52 boys and girls ages 11 to 17, each of whom will swim a one-mile stretch. The youth swimmers are from various swim clubs throughout Western New York and Southern Ontario.

Dean plans to swim one mile of the marathon, as well. Dean’s participation in the swim is evidence of her dedication to the cause. As a champion athlete, Dean used to swim for more than 24 hours at a time. Now, swimming 100 yards can tire her. But Dean didn’t let pain and fatigue get to her when she made her record-breaking swims, and she won’t let it stop her now.

“I’m going to be in pain regardless of whether I’m on shore, on the boat or in the water,” Dean said. “Why not see if I can help? If that little bit of help can inspire another person, then it is worth it.”

For more information on Carly’s Crossing or to make a donation to Carly’s Club, visit