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Associated Press
This July 8, 2008 photo shows Faye Poenisch holding some memorabilia of her late husband, Walter, who claimed to have swum from Cuba to Florida.

Ohio woman celebrates 100th birthday of late swimmer in disputed Cuba-to-Florida feat

CINCINNATI – A central Ohio woman plans a celebration for what would have been her late husband's 100th birthday and the 35th anniversary of his disputed Cuba-to-Florida swim.

Faye Poenisch will have a reception Thursday evening in her Grove City home to honor Walter Poenisch, who on his 65th birthday in 1978 began his swim with Cuban President Fidel Castro personally seeing him off in Havana. The Cuban government praised Poenisch at the time for trying to help U.S.-Cuban relations.

The retired Ohio baker and record-holding endurance swimmer called his effort the "Swim for Peace" and said he completed nearly 130 miles to the Florida Keys within two days.

But his self-proclaimed feat wasn't universally accepted because of what some considered insufficient independent documentation, and his use of flippers, a snorkel and other help.

"I don't know what the big deal was," Faye Poenisch said Wednesday of skepticism about his swim. "I know others have attempted it and not completed it."

Poenisch, who was in the escort boat for her husband's swim, hopes to have a book she has written about it published.

She will display during the reception her memorabilia of Poenisch's swims, including photos of him in Cuba and during the swim, and also the bathing cap, goggles and swim fins he used. He also was a rodeo performer and had other interests she will highlight. He died at their suburban Columbus home in 2000.

Soon after Poenisch's swim, Diana Nyad, who was among his critics at the time, made the first of her four unsuccessful attempts.

Both Poenisch and Nyad used shark cages in 1978. In 1997, Australian swimmer Susie Maroney made the Cuba-Florida crossing in a shark cage, but no one has been credited with completing the swim without one. Nyad has tried three times, including last year at age 63.

Besides sharks, swimmers must overcome the grueling distance, strong currents pushing them off course, dehydration and other physical issues, and one of the most frequent swim-stoppers: painful jellyfish stings.

Australian Chloe McCardel cut short an effort last month to make the swim without a shark cage when she was overwhelmed by jellyfish.