One of the world’s most famous swimmers in the 1940’s
Recipient of the Croix de Guerre and Olympic Medal
Recipient of the Croix de Guerre and Olympic Medal
If you take a walk in the old French Quarter, in the Wittenau district, of Berlin, you can have a chance to cross the Rue Georges Vallerey. And you can imagine that this Vallerey was a German administrator, or a general, or whatever else. In fact, the street was named after a Frenchman and one of the world’s most famous swimmers of the 1940s. His name was
Georges-Urbain Vallerey, Jr. and he was born on October 21st, 1927 in Amiens, France, 100 kilometers north of Paris, into a very special family. The father, Georges (1902-1956) swam at the Paris Olympic Games and his six children, Jehan (1925), Georges, Guy and Michel (1932), Jacques (1939) and Gisele (1930) were all world-class competitive swimmers.
|He was born into a family of fish.|
In 1932, the family relocated to Casablanca, Morocco, a colony of France, where Georges became an exceptionally good swimmer. He was gifted and superiorly trained for the time, by his knowledgeable father, who was inspired by the American methods to train in all three strokes. Georges, nicknamed “Yo-Yo,” was always ready to help others and was only eleven when he made news saving a young girl from drowning. But his great exploit as a lifesaver happened on the 8th November, 1942.
While the second World War was raging in Europe, an Armistice between the French government, in Vichy, and Nazi Germany, had made Morocco ostensibly a neutral territory. The Allies saw this
neutrality as aiding the Nazis and hoped to convince the sizable French Naval fleet stationed in the harbor of Casablanca, to join them, through a show of strength. Instead of surrendering, the French fleet resisted and the Naval Battle of Casablanca ensued. Watching the battle from the beach, which was taking place a few miles out to sea, was George Vallerey and the best friend of the family, Robert Guenet, 14 years his senior. Georges was only 15, but a very strong guy, with a Herculean build (even though not tall, 5’8’’ or 1,73m), and he could swim like an otter.
|George Vallerey at 15,|
recipient of the Croix de Guerre.
The French ships were outgunned by the American fleet and several French vessels retreated into the harbor while under attack, hoping to avoid being sunk at sea. George and Robert saw a ship being hit by high-explosive shells some 300 meters off the shore. By tradition, many of the sailors did not know how to swim and the pair quickly realized that many were drowning as they abandoned the ship. Without any hesitation, they undressed, jumped into the water and began to swim to the ship, which was still being hit by bullets and shells, through water covered with burning oil. Each rescued a sailor, returned to the beach with them, and immediately swam back to the burning wreck. The bombing continued but they didn’t stop. Yo-Yo found a little boat on the beach, tied a rope around his waist and swam it out to the ship. By this method he saved scores of seamen.
On the 13th of May, 1943, Georges Vallerey, and Robert Guenet, were decorated with the Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Bronze (War Cross with Bronze Star), but that is not the end of this story.
Three years later, in 1946, Georges, by now a robust young adult, began his remarkable swimming career that saw him establish with Alfred Nakache and Alexandre Jany the world record for the 300 meters medley relay. By 1947, he was the best French swimmer in the 200 breaststroke, 100 and 200 backstroke, and 400 meters freestyle.
The next year, at the London Olympic Games, he won the bronze medal in the 100 meters backstroke. Seeing his talent, Bob Kiphuth, the great American coach, tried to recruit Georges to Yale University, but he was now established in Paris and declined. In 1949, Yale’s Allen Stack, the 100 meters backstroke Olympic champion at London, thinking that the Casablanca swimming pool was fast, wanted to try for the world record and asked Vallerey to accompany him. Vallerey won the race in a time faster than Stack’s winning time in London. Later he starred in a short film by famed French filmmaker, Julien Duvivier, that further magnified his reputation and celebrity.
|At the 1949 Christmas Cup where |
his death warrant was signed.
Then in December, he swam in a Christmas Cup, where the water was at 1° Celsius (34° Fahrenheit). He developed a throat infection, that triggered a nephritis, which is an inflammation of his kidneys. The disease would incapacitate him for four years and finally claim his life on October 4, 1954, in Casablanca, seventeen days before his twenty-seventh birthday. In his memory, the Les Tourelles Piscine, where the swimming events of the 1924 Olympic Games were held, was renamed piscine Georges-Vallerey. Today the pool has been renovated and is one of the great pools of the world - a lasting tribute to a great swimmer and hero who died too young.
The International Hall of Fame, established in 1965, is a not-for-profit educational organization located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Its mission is to promote the benefits and importance of swimming as a key to fitness, good health, quality of life, and the water safety of all adults and children. It accomplishes this through operation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a dynamic shrine dedicated to preserving the history of swimming, the memory and recognition of the famous swimmers, divers, water polo players, synchronized swimmers and people involved in life saving activities and education whose lives and accomplishments inspire, educate, and provide role models for people around the world. For more information contact Bruce Wigo at 954-462-6536 ext. 201, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org