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Rizzo's record-breaking feat 25 years ago

Albert Rizzo dives into the sea at the start of his record swim 25 years ago to date.

Albert Rizzo dives into the sea at the start of his record swim 25 years ago to date.

I remember first-hand accounts of his own exploits by my maternal grandfather Arthur (Turu) Rizzo. These include the peak of his achievement in deep sea endurance swimming when in September 1930, he clocked 68 hours and 18 minutes.

The event was eventually to be classified as "water treading". This world record remained intact for many decades. That is until my cousin, Albert Rizzo, broke it in September 1980.

Exactly 25 years ago today, a day after his 33rd birthday, Albert Rizzo, to cheer of family, friends and admirers was pushed into the sea at Gzira Creek. The gentle nudge was applied by H.H. Prof. J.J. Cremona and that Thursday evening was to be the beginning of an exciting adventure which led Rizzo to break not only his own personal 36-hour endurance record but also that of our grandfather's above-mentioned feat.

Along the way, once he had reached the 44-hour mark, it became known that officials responsible for the publishing of the Guinness Book of Records were willing to establish water treading as a new field of achievement and happy to feature Albert Rizzo as record holder in the field, even with "just" 44 hours to his credit.

However, Albert was determined to push on. When I met him a few days ago, he recalled: "You remember why I wanted to press on. I wanted to do it for our grandfather, to rekindle the memory of his feats. I wanted to do it for Malta and for my home town, Gzira."

Of course I remembered why he chose to spend all those hours in the murky waters of Gzira Creek rather than some other place in a clearer sea.

Despite having been for long stretches of time in the sea during other endurance tests or water treading, even the first phases of the record-breaking event were fraught with some difficulties.

These concerned weather conditions rather than Rizzo's physical fitness or morale. Adverse weather conditions had finally doomed the completion of our grandfather's epoch-making attempted long distance swim from Sicily in the summer of 1933, a few miles out at sea with Malta practically in sight.

Well, the younger Rizzo recalls how a sort of inner voice urged him on to challenge the uncomfortable weather conditions which threatened his venture during his first night in the sea.

By morning, all was well and as the hours passed, and his own 36-hour record broken, Albert says that that inner voice, which he says was our grandfather's, urged him to carry on.

The rest is sporting history. At 7.03 p.m. on Sunday, September 28, 1980, Albert Rizzo, much to the astonishment of all present, emerged unaided from the sea. He had spent 72 hours and 3 minutes in the sea, three hours and 45 minutes more than our grandfather had managed. He preferred to walk to a waiting car rather than to an ambulance, went to what was then the Blue Sisters Hospital in St Julian's and walked some flights up to Ward 11.

Here it is worth noting a few uncanny things. When Albert Rizzo chose to embark on this feat, he never for a moment realised that September 25 was 50 years to the day when our grandfather had established his own world record.

More peculiar was that when he went to the Blue Sisters Hospital he was greeted by an elderly nun who took him to Ward 11 telling him that bed and ward were the same our grandfather had used after his endurance swim 50 years before!

Guinness Book of Records

Well, Albert Rizzo's feat 25 years ago led to his being mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records 1983 edition. Albert was also proclaimed Sportsman of the Year in February 1981.

After breaking his own record by clocking 108 hours in the summer of 1983, Albert Rizzo was featured again in the Guinness Book of Records 1985 edition. Two years earlier, he had been the very first Maltese to be mentioned in that prestigious book and could have qualified yet again when in 1984 he reached his all-time maximum record of 132 hours!

However, he was not to be mentioned in the 1986 edition because, by then the editors, while recognising his 132-hour record, had decided not to include water treading as a sporting activity any more because they deemed that such feats were harmful to the contenders' health.

Albert Rizzo's name has been carved in the annals of Maltese men and women whose feats brought honour and fame to our little country.

His swimming feats are a thing of the past now but which should not be forgotten. His energies have been channelled elsewhere and when the first Local Council elections for Gzira were held in 1994, Albert contested them successfully and became first mayor of Gzira, a post he occupied until 1998. In December 2001, a long-overdue recognition by the State resulted in Albert Rizzo being conferred with the Midalja ghall-Qadi tar-Repubblika. Since April this year, Albert Rizzo is serving again as mayor of Gzira.

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