Following in the wake of Russia’s Simeon Boychenko was Leonid Meshkov. Born in Volgograd in 1916, he showed promise as a swimmer. In 1936 his family moved to Leningrad so he could train at the “Dolphin Sports Club.” In 1940, Meshkov, like Boychenko, broke the recognized world record in the 100-meter butterfly-breaststroke, and European records in the 200 and 400-meter freestyle. Also like Boychenko, his times were not recognized.
On the morning of June 22, 1941, Meshkov, as usual, went to the swimming pool in Leningrad. On his way, he saw a large group of excited people and heard the word “war.” Immediately, he was at the military enlistment office, where they suggested his talents could best serve the motherland by teaching swimming. He insisted that his athletic training was better suited for the front. Meshkov got his wish and was assigned a reconnaissance unit. Within months there was heavy fighting around Leningrad and on the night of August 3, 1941 his unit was ordered to swim across the Luga River to reconnoiter the positions occupied by the Nazi invaders. After acquiring the necessary information, they were spotted. As searchlights illuminated the area and the Germans opened fire with rifles and mortars, the scouts raced toward the river. As Meshkov started to carry a wounded comrade to the water he was hit in the shoulder, leaving his leaving his right arm useless. In spite of this he managed to swim to safety, towing his wounded comrade across the river with the power of his legs.
In the hospital, doctors managed to save his arm, but it hung useless, without the ability to bend at the elbow or wrist and his fingers were tightly clenched in a fist. “Can I swim again?” he asked the surgeon. “Many people live happily without swimming!” replied the doctor. “Be thankful you have your hand.”
Leonid Meshkov refused to accept the doctor’s opinion that he might never swim again and dedicated himself to regaining the use of his arm. He studied anatomy and physiotherapy and built special machines for each muscle in his shoulder, hand and fingers. He had an iron will and was relentless in his training and gradually, the arm and hand painfully started to come back to life.
In fact, he did fully recover, and on December 20, 1949, Leonid Meshkov became the first Soviet swimmer to claim a FINA recognized world record, when he swam the 100-meter butterfly-breaststroke in 1:07.2. He broke his record five more times and held it until February of 1952. At the age of 36, Leonid Meshkov participated in the 1952 Helsinki, Finland Olympics. He later served as Head Coach of the Soviet National Swimming team and was a professor of physical education at Moscow State University before passing away in 1986.