The Florence: New Restaurant Honors Pioneer Swimming Superstar

San Diego eatery could bring new wave of recognition for swim legend Florence Chadwick

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Florence Chadwick was an endurance swimmer who set four records crossing the English Channel in the 1950s. A new San Diego restaurant, The Florence, will honor her accomplishments.
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Nick Sanderson holds a photo of Florence Chadwick finishing an English Channel swim.

For nearly two years, Nick Sanderson was immersed in the details of building and designing a restaurant that will celebrate one of the world’s greatest, if largely forgotten, athletes.

On March 18, prepare to be re-introduced to Florence Chadwick.

A disproportionate number of people will wonder, “Who?” During the 1950s—before there were tweets, Boomerangs and viral videos—Chadwick was a global sensation. The pioneering female sports superstar set a world endurance swimming record each of the four times she successfully swam the English Channel.

After channel-crossing fame, she was honored with a ticker tape parade in her hometown of San Diego. She appeared in a Hollywood movie, did a guest spot on the TV panel game show What’s My Line?, made an Ovaltine commercial and was welcomed at the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Chadwick was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions—and for awhile she held the world record for both men and women. Her accomplishments had been on display at the San Diego Hall of Champions, but a proper memorial to her groundbreaking accomplishments doesn’t currently exist.

Then along came Sanderson. A partner in Legal Restaurants, he was tasked with finding a theme for a large eatery that would go into a commercial real estate complex in the San Diego bedroom community of Sabre Springs. Sanderson says he found that the land under the Class A office space owned by Kilroy Realty formerly belonged to the Chadwick family. He did a little digging and “discovered” the feats of Florence Chadwick.

Sanderson and his partners decided the restaurant would be named The Florence. For more than 18 months he Googled articles about Chadwick and searched for a living relative, with no luck. Plans proceeded based on the public information Sanderson was able to scroll and click on.

“Then on New Year’s Eve I spoke with Jennifer Baker,” Sanderson says, a broad smile illuminating his face. “She told me Florence was her mother’s aunt. The very next day, New Year’s Day 2019, she came to the restaurant site with a box full of Florence’s memorabilia.”

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Chef Anthony Friscia holds a photo of Florence Chadwick and boxer Rocky Marciano.

Indeed, Baker was Chadwick’s great niece (Jennifer Baker’s mom, Dixie, is the daughter of Florence’s older brother, Robert). Florence never had children, so the memorabilia amassed in Dixie’s house. There are an estimated 10,000 artifacts from an amazing life: Swim goggles. Bathing suits. Handwritten maps of routes to swim the English Channel.

And photographs! There are pictures of Chadwick paddling in the ocean; riding in a ticker tape parade in the car the city of San Diego gave her; and giving boxing great Rocky Marciano a pool-side swimming lesson.

“It blew me away,” Sanderson recalls. “I was nervous, and I was imagining that Jennifer thought I was scamming her, so we were just treading water at first. I told that if this wasn’t right for her family then that was fine. But after bringing a box of stuff that first day, they came back with a truck full of memorabilia.”

Yes, there was some initial skepticism, says Baker, who grew up in nearby Poway and lives in Mexico. “But we just have to trust that this is being done for the right reasons,” she says. “It’s a beautiful project and we couldn’t be happier. We’d love it if Florence’s name could be brought back to the forefront.”

The History of Florence Chadwick

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14-year-old Florence Chadwick in 1932.

At the pinnacle of her stardom, swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuller, who famously played the lead character in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ’40s, said of Chadwick: “She is the greatest women swimmer of all-time, maybe of either sex, and its time she got credit for it.”

Chadwick’s swimming career didn’t start off on a successful note, however. In 1924, at the age of six she was enrolled in classes at the Mission Beach Swimming School. Before her first race, she bragged she would win—even though she was the youngest competitor. She lost. Humiliated, she vowed from then on to button her lip, train harder and let accomplishment speak for itself.

Throughout the 1930s she won most of the races she entered, including numerous rough water swims off the coast of La Jolla. During that decade, while a student at San Diego’s Point Loma High School she began commuting north to compete for the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team.

One of Chadwick’s L.A. teammates was Esther Williams, who went on to major fame in the “aqua-musical” films of the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1945, Chadwick ended her amateur swimming career by appearing with Williams in the film Bathing Beauties.

That wasn’t Chadwick’s cup of tea, though. She referred to the synchronized swimming in the movies as “…ballet baloney.”

In the late 1940s, now twice divorced, Chadwick found herself teaching swimming lessons while restlessly hosting, managing and doing the books for her mother’s San Diego restaurant, called Chadwick’s.

With an ulterior motive in mind, Chadwick sought and found work doing accounting for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. The pay was good—but her real plan was to train in the rough waters of the Persian Sea to get ready for a try at crossing the English Channel.

Imagine if you can, the moxie. Never mind that in 1948 Chadwick hadn’t told her parents she was moving to the Middle East until the day before the flight. Here she was living in the epicenter of the Muslim universe in a country where women weren’t allowed to swim—much less appear in public in a bathing suit. She hired locals to sneak her by car to the beach. She looped a rope around her waist and tied it to heavy objects on dry land while she swam, for endurance training and for safety.

“There was always a strong work ethic in the family,” Jennifer Baker says. “Moving to Saudi Arabia is one of the most inspiring parts of this story—and it really shows off her dedication and her discipline.”

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A portrait of Florence Chadwick and her father.

By 1950, Chadwick had saved up $5,000. Before returning to the United States, she would travel to France, meet her father and give the English Channel swim a try. The London Daily Mail was sponsoring a channel-swim contest. She applied—but was refused entry by the newspaper staff, who had never heard of her.

Undaunted, she and her father hired a boat team for a solo attempt. Coincidentally, another American swimmer, Shirley May France, was making her second attempt (after failing the first time) on the same day at nearly the same time as Chadwick.

France had hired a film crew. She also had several boats filled with reporters following her in the water. When France became ill and had to be pulled out of the water, Chadwick became the story. She finished with a time that beat the previous women’s record (held by Chadwick’s idol, Gertrude Ederle) by more than an hour.

When the London Daily Mail invited her to participate in their race in 1951, Chadwick politely declined. Instead, she made plans to do the crossing in reverse. She started in Dover, England, and 16 hours and 22 minutes later, she finished the 23-mile trip by crawling up onto the French coastline.

The next year, in her second attempt she became the first woman to swim the 21 miles from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes on the California mainland. Despite dense fog, and the occasional rifle blast from her support crew to ward off sharks, Chadwick broke a 27-year-old record with a time of 13:47:55.

Chadwick also navigated the Straits of Gibraltar (Africa to Spain in the Mediterranean Sea) and the straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles (both of which form continental divides between Europe and Asia).

After retiring from long-distance swimming, she became a stockbroker in her hometown—but she never stopped working with youth groups or encouraging young people to pursue their dreams.

The Florence restaurant

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The outdoor “boathouse” at The Florence restaurant.

Chadwick didn’t live on the property where a new restaurant will bear her first name. But Sanderson hopes the March 18 grand opening will be a homecoming of sorts—and a re-connection to the public.

It’s possible a new must-see San Diego hot spot is about to be christened…in a Sabre Springs business park.

The Florence is a $4-million endeavor that will include two acres of outdoor event space and 10,000 square feet of interior dining areas. Outdoors, there will be fire pits, a covered “boat shack” and beach-chic seating. Inside, the cocktail bar, lounge area and barista café will have touches like Cape Cod shutters, wallpaper depicting a lifeguard stand and overhead fixtures that mimic wide-brimmed beach hats.

There is so much Florence Chadwick memorabilia available that Sanderson says it will likely be seasonally rotated on display.

The “coastal American” restaurant is manned by a San Diego all-star food-and-beverage team. Along with Sanderson, the Legal Restaurants executive team includes chef Antonio Friscia (formerly of Gaijin and Stingaree), Keoni Barcarse (interior design) and Fern Tran (culinary director). Partners include executive chef Ricardo Heredia (Alchemy), spirits director Jason O’Bryan (The Lion’s Share), and wine director Victoria O’Bryan (Addison at Fairmont Grand Del Mar).

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A 1940s vintage menu from Chadwick’s.

A few original menus from Chadwick’s, the eatery owned by Florence’s mother, are among the donated memorabilia. Heredia says the new menu will include several modern takes on items from Chadwick’s, including stewed oysters and milk.

For now, before it goes up on display in the restaurant, most of the memorabilia is being temporarily stored in a bedroom in the Friscia residence. It’s being curated by the chef’s wife, Stacy.

A history major, Stacy Friscia says she’s awed by the collection, which includes trophies, yearbooks, kindergarten photos, a stopwatch, telescope, whistle, tide charts and personal journals.  

“Florence Chadwick has become my hero,” Friscia says. “This collection paints a picture of an independent-thinking, modern woman—even for today. She did what she wanted to in a time when that wasn’t normally possible for women. She’s an example for girls today—and I hope people are interested in learning more about her.”

Reservations not required.

The-Florence-logo(The Florence is located at 13480 Evening Creek Drive North in Sabre Springs. It’s accessible from the I-15 freeway via the Ted Williams Parkway. Coincidentally, the San Diego-born baseball great with a roadway named after him and Chadwick were friends, and occasionally exchanged letters during their storied careers.)  J&J