First person to swim length of Lake Tahoe reflects back on 1955 feat
Tears filled Fred Rogers’ eyes as he drove down Echo Summit into the Tahoe Basin last Thursday.
Fixing his watery eyes on Lake Tahoe, the 80-year-old Novato man reflected back to the 1955 when he turned this burgeoning gaming community upside down with a feat that won’t be forgotten.
Rogers, then 32, became the first person to swim the length of Lake Tahoe. The South San Francisco bartender swam 23 miles from Kings Beach to El Dorado Beach in 19 hours, 6 minutes and 6 seconds.
“This one up here will always be my biggest accomplishment,” Rogers said.”I got the biggest award ever and being there with Frank Sinatra at Cal-Neva … all the big wheels and guest stars were there that night.”
Testing the waters
Rogers has spent most of his adult life, setting unthinkable goals and reaching them before others. As a young man, Rogers began to dabble in long-distance feats by swimming from the San Francisco piers to Treasure Island.
After conquering Lake Tahoe in 1955, Rogers went on to become the first person to swim 29 1/2 miles from the Farallon Island to the mainland. Rogers also outmaneuvered his long-distance swimming peers by becoming the first to circle “The Rock.” His swim around Alcatraz took 47 minutes.
Given up for dead
But Rogers never received the fanfare from those adventures that he received in Lake Tahoe.
Short of the $500 entry fee necessary to make his length-of-the-lake swim in 1955, Rogers received assistance from millionaire businessman Oliver Kahle and the chamber of commerce.
Before making his splash into Lake Tahoe history, Rogers was given up for dead by the U.S. Coast Guard during an aborted training swim. Armed with a barber and bartender in a rowboat, Rogers departed Stateline with hopes of convincing his naysayers that he was indeed fit to swim from the North Shore to the South Shore.
“It was really something funny to watch because they didn’t know how to row. They didn’t know where they were going, believe me. If I was training 12 miles, I must have gone 15 or 18 miles,” Rogers said. “The width was tougher than the length, the waves would come up at 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had to go through those waves if I was going to do the length.”
The worn-out rowers convinced Rogers to abbreviate his training that night. Later, with no sign of Rogers in the water, the coast guard announced on the radio that it had given up looking for Rogers and his two companions.
“I thought everything was cool, but it wasn’t, because Oliver was worried about us three,” Rogers said.
Crashing Rogers’ party
By the day of his adventure, Aug. 28, 1955, Rogers wasn’t alone. Jose Cortinas, who failed in the first attempt to conquer the lake’s length in 1952, was determined to beat Rogers to El Dorado Beach.
“He wanted to crash in to my story and my swim,” Rogers said. “Every night he was out at Harrah’s Club, Wagon Wheel, all-night clubs that were here and Reno, too. For two weeks, as far as I know, he was never in that water.”
Just like his failed attempt in 1952, Cortinas had to be pulled from the water against his will.
“I put on such a burst and he couldn’t keep up,” Rogers said. “They couldn’t get him in the boat because he was greasy and they finally had to put ropes around him to pull him in at Zephyr Cove.”
A throng of people cheered Rogers when he finally set foot on El Dorado Beach. An impromptu party was thrown on Roger’s behalf at 1 a.m. and the weary swimmer spent the next day in a predictable position.
“When they finally woke me up, they told me I had been sleeping a day and a half,” Rogers said.
Although it has been reported that Rogers didn’t receive a cash award for his feat, he says otherwise. Rogers said he received a sum of $20,000, a pot that grew from entry fees from failed attempts. He said he used part of the money to buy a home.
Today, Rogers remains an avid open-water swimmer. He recently won his age division at a 1-mile race at Folsom Lake and regularly participates in the Donner Lake Swim near Truckee.
But on this warm October day, Rogers had no intention of taking a dip in Lake Tahoe.
“A month ago I would have gone in and done several miles,” he said.
Rogers’ feat precipitated many other length-of-the lake attempts. The most recent – and one of the most memorable – was performed by 39-year-old Laura Colette of San Francisco.
Colette, a member of South End Rowing Club, swam from Camp Richardson to Kings Beach in 12:36:52. Like many ultra-distance swimmers who take on the lake, Colette conducted her swim at night. September also is a popular month because the water is at its warmest and traffic on the lake is minimal.
The U.S. Coast Guard was aware of Colette’s swim, but didn’t accompany her.
“Sometimes they don’t even call us to let us know they’re doing it,” said Adam DuPont of the coast guard. “If they do, we make sure they have a (support) boat next to them and give them the numbers to our station in case they encounter problems.”Erlene Christpherson of Lodi, Calif., was the first female to swim the length of the lake in 1962. The 16-year-old swam from Baldwin Beach to Dollar Point in 13 hours and 17 minutes.
Leonore Modell of Sacramento is the youngest to conquer the width and length. As a 13-year-old eighth-grader in 1962, Modell swam 13 miles from Tahoe Pines to Glenbrook in 6:39:13. Later that fall, Modell swam from Tahoe Keys to Kings Beach in 14:34.