At the beginning of February I received an email from Stephen Miller, president of the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, informing me that there would be a ceremony in March to award certificates and medals to all the swimmers who had completed the crossing of the North Channel last season. I told him that it would be impossible for me to attend, so asked me to appoint a representative—which, living as I do on the other side of the world, was complicated.
Turning the matter over in my mind, Maria Quinn’s name came to mind. I’d met her on Facebook: throughout my season of preparation for the North Channel swim she posted supportive comments and, every time I asked her a question about the waters of the Channel, she answered quickly and kindly. It never occurred to me to ask her about her nationality. I assumed that she had an Anglo-Irish father (Quinn) and probably an Hispanic-American mother (Maria).
Finding myself faced with this situation, I wrote to tell her about it and to ask for her help. I had no idea what her reaction would be, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I’d hardly finished sending the message when she replied: “Certainly! It would be a pleasure.”
After Maria picked up my medal, I discovered that she had won one of the most important and challenging competitions in Ireland, the Liffey. The funny thing about the event is that, instead of all the competitors starting at the same time, the goal is to arrive at the same time. The faster you are, therefore, the later you start the competition.
In 2011, Maria was given such a big handicap that it was practically impossible for her to make it, but she still won. She managed to do it because that year the distance was longer and the good handicaps were seen as bad. This system also plays with your head: a race can be lost because of demotivation. However, even though Maria did not believe she had a chance, she won because she gave everything she had just to get a minor prize, best veteran swimmer, awarded in addition to the trophies awarded to the top ten places.
Given that Ireland is a land of fairies and leprechauns, Maria does not rule out that An Liffey, the fairy of the Liffey River, helped her to victory. Legend has it that the fairy chooses the winners: sometimes she does it to reward the effort and sometimes simply to pull a prank on swimmers who’ve been given a big handicap. With or without the assistance of the fairy, I had no doubt that Maria must be a swift swimmer. “How long have you been swimming?” I asked. “Since I was 3 years old,” she said. “Rita Pulido took me to the beach.”
Little by little I discovered that Maria Quinn was actually María Quintanilla, a Spanish engineer from the Canary Islands who lives in Ireland. However, every time I asked her something about her swimming career, Rita Pulido’s name came up again.
I was surprised to learn that Rita was a Spanish swimming prodigy. She competed in the Olympic Games in Rome and Tokyo in the 100 and 200 freestyle. Her style on the water was impeccable and her beauty dazzling. One day, while walking through the Olympic village shaded by a traditional Japanese umbrella, she was photographed—and then amazed to see her image in the biggest newspaper in Japan. It created such a stir that the media called her Miss Tokyo 1964.
I share with everyone my medal and certificate proving that I crossed the North Channel in 13 hours and 32 minutes. In addition, we now know that there is a Spaniard swimming and winning events in Ireland—and became acquainted with one of the legends of Spanish swimming.