Diane Struble: The Invincible Woman
Swimming the Length of the Lake Was the Least She Could Do
It’s been almost sixty years since Diane Struble, at the time a 25-year-old single mother, became the first person to swim the length of Lake George.
Starting from the dam at the lake’s outlet in Ticonderoga, Struble reached Lake George Village approximately 35 hours later. She woke up the next morning to find herself famous.
“Length of Lake George Swimmer Gains International Fame; So Do We!” proclaimed a Lake George Mirror headline.
According to the Mirror, Struble’s feat was “televised world-wide;” she was interviewed by the Today show and appeared on “To Tell the Truth” and other shows of that era. Her appearances, the Mirror said, were “a real plug for Lake George.”
To commemorate the event, which took place in August, 1958, the Lake George Historical Association is creating an exhibition that will be displayed this summer in the museum in the old Courthouse.
Organized with the assistance of Gwenne Rippon, the second of Struble’s three daughters, the exhibit contains photos, newspaper clippings, memorabilia and a diorama created by Marisa Muratori.
To be sure, Struble’s feat is of historical interest, especially on Lake George, but the exhibition is also a way to honor Struble herself. In retrospect, and in her own way, she was a champion of women’s independence and equality.
“Diane Struble was my first woman hero,” says the museum’s curator, Lisa Adamson, who recalled that as a child, she rowed out to Diamond Island to catch sight of the swimmer and then followed her progress on short wave radio.
“I was riveted,” said Adamson.
Struble hoped that she would be a role model, says Gwenne Rippon.
“My mother said, ‘If I can convince even one person that faith can move mountains, this swim will have been worthwhile for that alone,’” said Rippon.
Although Struble was awarded $2,500 by the Schaefer Brewing Company and the Lake George Chamber of Commerce for successfully completing the swim, “she didn’t do it for fame or fortune; she wanted to challenge herself. She was an extraordinary person, strong-willed and destined to do excellent things, no matter what the field,” says Rippon.
Still, for a single mother who was not a professional athlete, the $2,500 prize was probably welcome.
“My grandmother, who was also a single mother, would row behind her. She grew up swimming in cold waters, surrounded by nature, which prepared her for her Lake George swim,” said Rippon. “Her mother told her, ‘nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it.’”
As a teenager in Scotia, Struble made an early, unsuccessful attempt to swim the length of the lake. Rather than deterring her, that failure motivated her.
“Barney Fowler, the columnist, got wind of her. He asked her what she wanted to do and she said, ‘swim Lake George,’” said Rippon.
With the help of Paul Lukaris, the owner of Animal Land (and later, Struble’s husband), she began planning for the 1958 swim.
While in training, Struble lived with her three daughters in a camper at Hearthstone Park.
As the New York Mirror recounted in 1958, “After hours of training in the icy lake waters, she’d come home to the trailer, cook dinner for herself and her daughters over an open fire, and then read them bedtime stories by the light of a kerosene lamp. Because there was no room inside the trailer, after her daughters were bedded down, Diane slept outdoors, even when it rained, in a sleeping bag on the ground.”
Gwenne Rippon has spent the past few years collecting as much information as she can about the swim, retrieving and organizing newspaper clippings and photographs, interviewing people such as Lake George Village Mayor Bob Blais who witnessed the feat and giving public talks, where she encourages people to discuss their recollections.
She’s learned that tour boat passengers cheered her on, that it was a struggle for her mother to keep herself from freezing in the Narrows at dawn and that she had made Paul Lukaris promise not to pull her from the water, no matter what.
Rippon herself can recall being brought out on the lake with her two sisters to cheer her mother on.
“We were coached by WWSC radio’s Freddie Carota to cheer, ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray, Mommie!’ My younger sister said, ‘Look at my little mommie in the big, big water!’” Rippon remembers.
Late on Saturday night, after having been in the water for 35 ½ hours and after having swum 41 miles, Struble reached the docks on Beach Road. Ten thousand people and 200 boats were there to greet her.
Struble went on to swim the width of Lake Champlain and to circle Manhattan. She remarried, had more children and attended college in Florida.
According to her daughter, she always insisted that her greatest accomplishments were her children, and swimming the length of Lake George.
Struble died in 2006 at the age of 73. Over the years, Rippon said, she has come to appreciate the significance of her mother’s achievement.
It was not simply becoming the first person to swim the length of Lake George.
“Her story is a metaphor for life. Her example tells us: ‘Know your purpose; don’t let others do for you what you can do for yourself; surround yourself with angels; keep a sense of humor; live your life as an inspiration to others,’” says Rippon.
On Lake George, in something less than 48 hours, she came to exemplify and illustrate those life lessons for generations of women. That’s reason enough to honor and celebrate her memory.