Crossing the Channel: Gertrude Ederle's Epic Swim

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On this date 92 years ago, an intrepid American named Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel.

Needless to say, Ederle was accomplished in the water before she made history across the Atlantic. At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, she won two individual bronze medals and gold in the 400-meter freestyle relay, all while swimming with an injured knee. Although only 18, it was in France that she decided on conquering the channel. It had been done five times before, all by male swimmers. Ederle was pretty certain she could do it, and faster, than the men.

In the Roaring Twenties, charismatic American showmen like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, and Charles Lindbergh were performing amazing feats of derring-do. None, however, was more impressive than the swim undertaken on August 6, 1926 by Gertie Ederle.

As she related to the New York Times, “I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.”

She did indeed, prompting President Calvin Coolidge to dub this extraordinary woman “America’s best girl.” 

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Born to German immigrants in 1905, Gertrude Ederle was one of six children. Her father was a butcher and a small merchant in New York City and the family owned a cottage on the Jersey Shore where the Ederle kids learned to love the ocean.

When Gertie was 5, a case of the measles caused hearing loss. As she grew older, the family’s doctors warned that swimming would make the girl’s condition worse. But keeping this self-described “water baby” out of the ocean was impossible. She was “happiest between the waves,” Gertie explained, and at age 9, she insisted that her father teacher her how to swim competitively. She was such a natural in the pool -- and so at home in the water -- that her dad found her a proper swim coach. By the age of 15, Ederle had set an array of swimming records at Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, in distances ranging from 100 to 800 meters. In a foreshadowing of that English Channel feat, Ederle once swam 16 miles from the Battery to Sandy Hook, N.J.

Her first attempt to cross the English Channel came in 1925, but after covering more than 23 miles in under nine hours, her coach believed she had become unconscious and he reached from the accompanying boat to grab her. Ederle protested, saying she had just been resting, but by the simple act of being touched she was disqualified.

She fired that coach and tried again the next summer with a new management team, which included a sponsor, the New York Daily News. At 7:08 a.m. August 6, 1926, wearing a two-piece suit she and her sister designed, and smeared with sheep grease to protect against the cold, Ederle waded into the water at Cape Gris-Nez in France. The water was initially calm, but favorable conditions did not last.

With her father in the chase boat urging her on -- he’d promised her a new Ford Roadster if she finished -- Ederle persevered through rough seas and currents so strong she ended up swimming some 35 miles instead of the 21 miles it would have been in a straight line. Nonetheless, she finished in 14 hours and 31 minutes, shaving two hours off the men’s best time.

When President Coolidge hosted her at the White House, he told Ederle, “I am amazed that a woman of your small stature should be able to swim the English Channel.” Coolidge was trying to be gentlemanly, one supposes, but the remark must have struck Gertie herself as incongruous. Broad-shouldered and sturdy, she weighed about 142 pounds and would soon be hired as an adviser to the maker of plus-size women’s clothing.

New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker feted Ederle with a ticker-tape parade in her hometown that attracted an estimated 2 million people. Those lining the streets chanted “Trudy! Trudy!” (even though Ederle’s family always called her “Gertie”), Hollywood directors came calling, and marriage proposals arrived through the mail.

Although she consented to appear in a short movie about her life, she didn’t avail herself of any offers of matrimony. Her hearing did indeed worsen, the mass adulation stressed her out, and eventually she was forgotten by the public, which suited her fine. Ederle taught deaf children to swim, reveled in her blessings, and lived quietly with a group of female friends. She died peacefully in 2003, at age 98, and is buried in the Bronx.

“I have no complaints,” she told one reporter. “I am comfortable and satisfied. I am not a person who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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