The patient in hospital room 387 in Maadi used to finish first in some of the biggest, most famous races in the world. Today, he is involved in perhaps the toughest challenge of all – the race against time.
A weak heart has sapped much of the strength that once coursed through the sinews of Abdel-Latif Abu Heif. Once feted by kings and presidents, the Abu Heif of today gets few visitors. Many of this generation might not even recognize the name. But Abu Heif is synonymous with long, long-distance swimming. And at least for this writer, he is neither alone nor unknown.
Abu Heif is probably the best athlete Egypt ever produced. Had he been American, he would have vied with Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis for the title of the best in history. That he achieved worldwide acclaim without a United States or other Western passport is testimony to his greatness.
From 1951-1975 Abu Heif ruled the waves like no other human (he was likely speedier than some fish). He was the first man to cross the English Channel three times, the first in 1951 at age 22, the youngest to do so at the time. Crossing the Channel was much talked about in the 1950s and his 1953 crossing set a world record of 13:45 hours.
From Michigan to Capri, Abu Heif entered 68 races, churning past his opponents in the majority.
For the achievements, in May 2001 Abu Heif was unanimously named the long-distance swimmer of the century by the International Swimming Federation. Even better, in 1963 he was voted the best swimmer in history by the International Professionals Long-Distance Swimming Federation and the U.S. Swimming Higher Council. He was also named world swimming champion five years.
In 1966, at age 37, Abu Heif thought it time to spin dry his swim trunks but President Gamal Abdel-Nasser talked him into staying in the water for another nine years. His last race, the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, was the longest of his career. From Rosario to Buenos Aires is 250 km, akin to the distance from Cairo to Alexandria. It took him 60 hours. He finished first. He was 46.
In one Web site dedicated to illustrious Egyptians, Abu Heif is in the company of – or is it the other way around – Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Naguib Mahfouz, Ahmed Zuweil, Boutros Ghali, Mohamed Baradei, Dalida, Omar Sharif, Sayed Darwish, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Um Kulthoum, Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, Mohamed Ali, Magdi Yacoub and Mohamed El-Fayed. He is the only athlete mentioned.Lore has always partnered Abu Heif. It was said his lungs were twice the normal size. It was said an American team of doctors visited Egypt primarily to examine Abu Heif’s blood to see how he withstood water 10C for 14 hours during the 41-kilometer, or 21-mile, distance between Dover and Calais. It was said Abu Heif was Egypt’s most popular person after Nasser.
It was said that had Abu Heif been part of the delegation sent to Zurich which represented the country in its bid to host the 2010 World Cup, while his presence might not have prevented South Africa from taking the honor, it would have helped Egypt take home more than the big fat zero of votes it garnered.
What is fact was Abu Heif’s benevolence. He gave his English Channel prize of £1,000, a fortune then, to the seven children of a British swimmer who drowned in 1954 attempting to cross the Channel. He also gave the money he won in Nantes to a French swimmer who had become paralyzed. He donated prize money from an international race to the family of an Egyptian swimmer who had drowned.
Frail in health but with an astute mind, Abu Heif, now 77, can only be remembered, never forgotten.