Gertrude Ederle (born 1906) was one of the most famous athletes in the world. On August 6, 1926, she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel from France to England, a feat she accomplished in 14 hours 34 minutes. Her time beat the previous men's world record by 1 hour and 59 minutes.
The daughter of German immigrants to New York City, Gertrude Ederle was born on October 23, 1906. Her love of swimming began at an early age, when Ederle's family spent summers at a riverside cottage in Highlands, New Jersey. When they returned to the city for the winter, she swam in the 10th Avenue horse troughs, earning punishment from her father.
On August 1, 1922, when she was 15, Ederle grabbed world attention when she entered the Joseph P. Day Cup, a 3 1/2-mile race across New York Bay. As a long-distance swimmer, she was completely unknown; before that day, her longest race had been 220 yards. Amazingly, she beat 51 other contenders, including U.S. champion Helen Wainwright and British champion Hilda James. The experience made her realize that she had a talent for long-distance swimming. In the next few years, Ederle broke nine world records in distances from 100 to 500 meters, won six national outdoor swimming titles, and earned more than two dozen trophies. In the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, Ederle won a gold medal for the 400-meter freestyle relay, and won bronze medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle races.
In June 1925, Ederle swam 21 miles from the New York Battery to Sandy Hook, beating the men's record with her time of 7 hours, 11 minutes, and 30 seconds. She always enjoyed beating men's records, proving that women could succeed in reaching sports goals that most people thought were impossible.
In the 1920s swimming in general, and endurance swimming in particular, underwent a boom in popularity. It became more socially acceptable for women to swim and to compete in sports. Certain technical advancements in swimming technique were incorporated into American training and Gertrude Ederle was among the first swimmers to benefit from these advancements. She used a style of crawl swimming that was adapted from one developed by her early coach, famed trainer and swimming advocate L. deB. Handley. He worked extensively with the New York Women's Swimming Association, where he volunteered his services because the organization was too new and poorly funded to pay him. Known as "the greatest swimming instructor in the world," Handley was devoted to advancing the cause of women's swimming and was also fascinated with different swimming strokes and their effect on a swimmer's efficiency and endurance. Until the early part of the century, the crawl stroke so common today was unknown. When Handley heard about the Australian crawl stroke, he experimented with it and adapted it. He discovered that women were better at the crawl than men because their bodies were naturally more buoyant and they could kick faster. "Obviously, then," Handley wrote, "these newer strokes will allow girls and women to utilize more adequately their natural resources and either cover a given course faster, or last longer in an unlimited swim, than earlier styles."
Ederle, who was one of his proteges in a long list of champions, swam an eight-beat crawl adapted from Handley's "six-beat-double-trudgeon crawl," which involved thrashing the legs four times for each arm swing, rolling the body heavily from one side to the other, and lifting the face toward the up arm on each stroke. Currently, most swimmers use a basic front crawl with a six-beat kick.
Handley wrote, "The extent of the progress may be gauged from the fact that American girls hold virtually all the world's swimming records for women today; while six years ago our national marks were so far behind the latter as to be a source of merriment to foreigners." Handley's earlier prophecy was correct; the new, efficient strokes, combined with natural talent, had led Ederle and many other women champions to victory.
Having won so many honors, Ederle set her sights on "swimming's holy grail": to swim across the English Channel. If she succeeded, she would be the first woman ever to complete the arduous passage. The first authenticated swim of the English Channel was that of Captain Matthew Webb, in August of 1875. Only five people had ever succeeded in crossing it, all of them men: two American, two English, and one Argentine. One swimmer, William Burgess, had attempted the swim 32 times before completing it in 1911. Most people at that time believed that women were not capable of crossing the Channel because it was so difficult and dangerous. As the Encyclopedia of World Sport notes, "Channel swimming is one of sport's most taxing challenges, with very high rates of failure. The fact that less than seven percent [of those] who attempt to swim across the English Channel complete the trip is a testament to the difficulty of the task. Only the very strong succeed."
When Ederle made the crossing, Channel swimming was a relatively new challenge. As a result of the efforts of Handley and others, marathon swimming was in vogue. Judith Jenkins George, in an article on long-distance women's swimming in the Canadian Journal of the History of Sport, noted that "Thousands of spectators were drawn to the oceans, lakes, and pools to observe the swimming marathons of the 1920s and 1930s. The fad of endurance swimming lasted less than a decade yet, during this time, it captivated the public's interest and the athlete's imagination as a test of courage and stamina."
Gertrude Ederle captured the public's imagination more than most. The Encyclopedia of World Sport quoted the August 7, 1926 issue of The New York Times, that remarked, "The record of her 19 years shows her to be courageous, determined, modest, sportsmanlike, generous, unaffected and perfectly poised. She had, in addition, beauty of face and figure and abounding health."
Ederle first attempted to swim the Channel in August 1925. After swimming for nine hours, she got seasick and her trainer, Jabez Wolffe, forced her out of the water, despite the fact that she insisted that she wanted to go on. She fired Wolffe and replaced him with experienced Channel swimmer, William Burgess.
Ederle sailed for France for her second attempt to cross the Channel in June 1926. Her resolve was strengthened by the fact that competitors were trying to do the same thing. On August 3, Clarabelle Barrett began the swim but was lost in fog and officially declared missing. She gave up the swim only two miles from France. Lillian Cannon of Baltimore, Maryland was also preparing to make the crossing.
After she arrived in France, Ederle waited to start, anxiously watching the weather and hoping for good conditions. On August 6, she prepared to set out. As she stood on the beach on the Boulogne side of Cape Gris-Nez, Ederle's trainers coated her with a mixture of olive oil, lanolin, and Vaseline; the grease would help keep her warm in the frigid water and would also lubricate her skin as she swam. Ederle wore yellow goggles, a red diving cap, and a red two-piece suit, an unusual style at the time. She waded into the water at 7:05 am, shouted "Cheerio!" dove into the 60-degree water, and began swimming toward Dover, England. This route, from France to England, is considered more difficult and dangerous than the England-to France crossing because of prevailing winds and tides. Ederle planned to swim with a westering spring tide for two hours, then drift back to the middle of the channel on the north-northeast tide in the next three hours, and then swim hard for four hours.
Weather conditions rapidly deteriorated as the wind picked up and the waves grew higher. After she had been swimming for six hours, a line squall roiled the water into dangerous cross-currents. "After eight hours I knew I would either swim it or drown," she said later, according to Jay Maeder of the Daily News. After twelve hours she was exhausted, just swimming to survive. Her supporters, following in a boat, became worried about her safety. "Trudy, you must come out!" they shouted. "What for?" she yelled back, and kept swimming. Later, Ederle said she was most motivated by several encouraging telegrams that her mother had sent from New York, and which her supporters read to her during the swim. In addition, she said, her father had promised that if she made it, he would buy her any sports car she wanted.
At Kingsdown in Dover, screaming spectators, flares, and searchlights were waiting for her when she stumbled out of the water. She had beaten Enrique Tirabocci's record by almost two hours. Because of the storm, it was estimated that she had swum at least 35 miles. "No man or woman ever made such a swim," her trainer, Burgess, said, according to Maeder. "It is past human understanding." Ederle's father had bet Lloyd's of London that she would win; he received $175,000. To celebrate the victory, he handed out free frankfurters to his whole neighborhood.
Encyclopedia of World Sport quotes British swimming expert and sportswriter Alec Rutherford, who wrote, "The swim came to an end in what might be describes as a blaze of glory … huge bonfires were kept burning along the beach, lighting up the waters, so that those ashore could see the strong, steady strokes which Miss Ederle kept until she was able to touch bottom and walk ashore."
When Ederle returned to Manhattan, the city gave her a ticker-tape parade that attracted two million spectators. She was flooded with book, movie, and stage offers, as well as proposals for marriage. She embarked on tours of North America and New York that drained her health and led, in 1928, to a nervous breakdown. As Robert Markel remarked in Women's Sports Encyclopedia, "Her recovery was slow, and undoubtedly more difficult than any swim she ever made." Ederle later taught hearing-impaired children to swim. She developed a special understanding for children with this disability because the prolonged exposure to cold water during her English Channel swim had left her with a hearing loss.
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