Skip to main content
Original Issue

Big Designs On The Big Apple

Julie Ridge, Broadway actress and Channel swimmer, plans to make her next splash by swimming all around the town—twice

Julie Ridge was doing push-ups at her New York City health club, but she wasn't doing wimpy ladies' push-ups on her hands and knees. She was up on her toes like a Green Beret, racing a one-minute time limit in a fitness evaluation test. Well before her 51st and final pushup, spectators had gathered. Who was this little dynamo with the circles pressed into the skin around her eyes?

A friend of Ridge's noticed the looks on the spectators' faces, and he told them, "That girl swam the English Channel last September. She's a Broadway actress, too." The logical response seemed to be, "Swam it or swam in it?" She seemed much too small and vulnerable to have swum across. As for Broadway, was there a Broadway in the Berkshires, maybe? It seemed possible that Ridge could have made it there, playing someone sweet and ingenuous like Julie in Carousel, covered in gingham and gazing soft-eyed at Billy Bigelow.

Of course, that was just a first impression. It turns out that the only part Ridge is miscast for is that of herself. The last play she appeared in was Oh! Calcutta!, billed as an "erotic musical comedy." She wasn't covered with gingham in that show. At times she wasn't covered with anything at all. After 18 months she finally quit Oh! Calcutta! to train for her Channel swim, a decision that provoked such headlines as: TURNS IN BIRTHDAY SUIT FOR BATHING SUIT and SHE AIMS FOR THE GREAT WET WAY.

What deceives people most about Ridge are her height—only 5'3"—and her heavy-lidded eyes, which make her look dreamy at times. The circles come from her swimming goggles, not fatigue. She's 26, but wearing patched jeans, worn Adidases, and red Snoopy watch she could pass for 17.

In August of 1981, a year before she would swim the Channel, Ridge had never swum more than a mile and a half nonstop. But she loved her daily pool swim, and Oh! Calcutta! had palled. "It was clear," she says now, "that the next goal in my life was to swim the English Channel."

It's difficult to imagine such a goal being clear to anyone other than Ridge. The director of Fort Lauderdale's Swimming Hall of Fame, Buck Dawson, watched her swim only five months before she set off in the Channel. "I was horrified," he says. "She was a nice girl, and very determined, but I didn't think she would ever make it, not with that stroke."

She almost didn't make it. It's only 25 miles—as the sea gull flies—from Dover, England to Cap Gris Nez, the nearest point in France, but. Ridge swam 35 miles. She spent a total of 17 hours and 55 minutes in the water, because the strong Channel currents forced her to take a route shaped roughly like an M. Not that Ridge was daunted by such a marathon effort. A month before she left for England, when a young admirer asked, "How far can you swim?" she came up with the title of a song she hoped to write: Flood the Sky and I'll Swim to the Moon.

Now, barring unexpectedly bad weather, Ridge has settled for a slightly less formidable goal. On a very high tide, and soon, probably on the night of July 10, she will begin her attempt to become the first person to swim around Manhattan Island twice, nonstop; fewer than 25 have done it once. It is about 28 miles around the island, but swimmers who plan carefully are aided by the currents that parallel the shores and can wind up actually stroking only 18 miles. That makes 36 miles of swimming for twice around, and Ridge went about that far in the Channel. But circumnavigating Manhattan is a tricky business, which is why on this afternoon she was doing pushups. The health club at Manhattan Plaza, an apartment complex two blocks from Times Square, has a 25-yard pool, where Ridge does most of her swimming, and a weight and exercise room.

She began the push-ups only minutes after completing a two-mile workout in the pool. After she finished, fitness instructor Don Harvey told her, "That's phenomenal. Most women can't do even one men's push-up." But Ridge, who can do at least 60 in a minute when rested, seemed dejected. She didn't perk up any when Harvey weighed her in at 122 pounds ("I just ate," she grumbled. "It should be 118") or when he taped her measurements at 34½-28-35‚Öù. In Oh! Calcutta! her waist had been only 26.

It's tempting to analyze the psyches of people like Ridge; certain bits of history are irresistible to contemplate, one being that Julie, until she was five, would sit alone in a corner, sucking her thumb, speaking not a word. "I may have been autistic," she says. In contrast, her sister Lisa, three years older, sang and danced for visitors at the Ridges' Arlington, Va. home for the first eight years of her life.

Ridge's mother, Jeanette, has a very different memory of Julie. She remembers her at three as "a child who could have been parachuted out of a plane over New York City and would have had the smarts to find her way home. What she's done so far is consistent with what I knew of her then; I could have predicted she'd accomplish whatever she set her mind to."

Ridge decided to be an actress at 12, after playing Maria in a summer camp production of West Side Story. Nine summers later she hadn't changed her mind, which is more remarkable than it would seem. She had just received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from Boston University, where in four years she had been selected for only one part at the BU theater. The play was Knickerbocker Holiday, and there was a dog in the cast that evidently wasn't trained to respond on cue. Part of Ridge's role entailed sitting in the wings, barking.

As a freshman at BU she began doing a daily mile at the university's 25-yard pool, but it wasn't for physical fitness. "It was a sanity thing," she says. As a sophomore, inching along at 45 minutes to the mile, she fantasized about competing in the Olympics. She even tried out for the BU swim team-. She recalls, "I didn't know people swam a mile in less than 20 minutes. The coach took one look at me and my whole fantasy was blown to bits."

Ridge graduated in June 1978, and by the following February she was dancing and singing in the chorus of a historical revue in Hershey, entitled Pennsylvania, U.S.A. In May when it closed she went to Cincinnati for a sort of mini-Grease called Rock Around the Clock. She played a cheerleader. After Rock Around the Clock closed, the Chicago company of Oh! Calcutta!—Ridge calls it the farm team—offered her $475 per week and her first Actors' Equity contract, so she went to Chicago. When that show's run ended, she was summoned to the New York company.

That was in November of 1980. Soon after she arrived in New York she started swimming at Manhattan Plaza, keeping fit and sane. She'd been curious about her physical breaking point, and a period of hard swimming plus a stomach virus triggered its arrival. At a matinee of Oh! Calcutta! Ridge struggled through the opening skit. Taking Off the Robe, in which the cast of eight did what the title suggests. Then, in Delicious Indignities, she played an English lady named Helen Axminster, who is enticed to the flat of one Alfred Duff Porter. He offers her a seat in a chair he has rigged to trap her; she declines, steps to the window and is ensnared in the curtain pulls. Duff Porter then begins to disrobe her, but before he can finish, she kicks him, he falls into his own trick chair and is himself trapped. Then Ridge/Axminster begins a long, spicy monologue.

On this afternoon, however, she started feeling faint. "He, too, decided to tie my arms," she was saying. "Don't, don't, I...." Her voice trailed off. Suddenly she slumped forward, hanging in the pulls like a marionette. The audience began to whisper. Finally, Duff Porter and the stage manager unfastened Ridge and carried her into the wings.

It would be nice to say that Ridge picked herself up and went back onstage, but such determination would have to wait for a far more crucial moment in the English Channel. Instead, she took the rest of the day off, a rare instance of moderate behavior on her circuitous way to France.

Her first concrete step toward the Channel swim was a 1982 New Year's resolution to leave Oh! Calcutta! the following May. By then she could save some money and still have five months to do nothing but train for a September crossing. She was already swimming two or more miles a day, but she knew nothing about distance swimming. So she read a dozen books on the subject and more than 30 magazine articles. She started taking cold showers, swam wearing a T shirt for extra drag, with a three-pound weight strapped to her waist to build strength and endurance.

Ridge left Oh! Calcutta! on May 2 and swam at the Hall of Fame pool for two weeks. Dawson was impressed with her pluck, if not her technique, and invited her to swim at his Ontario camp, Ak-O-Mak, in July. A week before leaving the camp. Ridge had completed a swim of 18 miles, and her time per mile was down to 35 minutes.

She arrived in England on Aug. 19, and immediately stopped eating fish. "I can't," she said. "I'll be swimming with them." But she ate nearly everything else, and just before dawn on the morning of Sept. 10 she weighed 128 pounds, not counting the 1½ pounds of lanolin and Vaseline that covered her.

At 5:10 a.m. the air temperature was 62° and the water an unusually warm—for the Channel—66° as Ridge stepped off Dover's Shakespeare Beach and stroked away for France. Accompanying her in the pilot boat Lady Jean were her father, Frank, her best friend, Vicki Rubin, and pilot Eric Baker. They would feed her hot chocolate and glucose tablets every hour or so and speak encouraging words, but except for an occasional "Yes, fine," she would converse only with herself.

She had never before stretched so far at the start of each stroke, and by the fourth hour the muscles around her ribs were aching. But she kept to a pace of 60 strokes per minute. Just before the fifth hour she said to herself, her lips moving. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever done. Never again." Then she thought. "Yet I've given myself the greatest adventure of my life."

Time passed. Ridge's mind wandered. She had been swimming for 11 hours when her father, having conferred with Baker, shouted, "We're six miles off the Point [Cap Gris Nez]."

That was the good news, but there was the matter of the tide, which was just shifting to the west. That was the bad news. It would carry her away from the Point. "One more strong hour," her father urged. So Ridge swam one more strong hour. Then she swam two more, against an increasingly stronger tide. In the three hours, she had gained one mile. There were still five to go.

Earlier Ridge had entertained herself by writing imaginary success telegrams in her head. Now she began writing failure messages and thinking, "Fourteen hours and thirty minutes; that's something to be proud of."

Her father, subdued now, said, "There's an outside chance you can still get in, but it will take six or seven more hours." She lifted her goggles and said, "I'm tired. Let's go home."

The dinghy was lowered, but for some reason Ridge didn't move toward it. "I don't know what it was," she says. "I wanted to touch it, but part of me didn't believe it could be over."

Finally she asked her father, "What does Eric say?"

"We're three miles north of the Point now," Baker told her. "If you can swim for one hour, hard, you've got a shot."

Ridge bobbed in the water. "One more hour," she thought, "and tomorrow I'll be asleep in bed, whether I make it or not." So she stayed in the water.

It was 7:30. The sun had set. She stepped up her stroke rate to 62 and plowed on. Two and a half hours later her father shouted. "I can see lights on shore. They're less than three-quarters of a mile. You can make it!"

Ridge started rewriting the telegrams. Finally her father shouted, "Only half a mile. Can you do it?" From the dark water, from this small, exhausted figure, came a voice of unexpected power, "Of course."

Ridge swam on, at 64 strokes to the minute, until she realized that the Lady Jean was gone. The Channel had become too rocky and shallow for the boat, but she didn't know that. She was bewildered at having been left alone in the dark. Then she saw the dinghy headed towards her, the beam of a powerful flashlight shining from its bow. Rubin called out, "Follow the light." Ridge felt ground under her feet and replied, a look of astonishment on her face, "I'm standing up."

"Then get in the boat," Rubin said, and Rubin and Ridge's father dragged her into the dinghy like an exhausted fish. It was 11:05 p.m. Ridge drank some fresh water, ate a banana and started dictating real telegrams.

When Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the Channel, returned to New York in 1926 she was given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway, but that was 240 Channel swimmers ago. Ridge would have settled for a job on the same street—any job but her old one. In the next few months, she auditioned and interviewed for dozens of plays, while collecting unemployment. She told friends, "I hope they realize that if I could swim the Channel then I obviously have the discipline and fortitude to do something great in the theater."

"Don't call us, we'll call you," she was told.

Ridge needed a new goal. She thought about swimming around Manhattan, but that had been done; then, during a workout at the Manhattan Plaza, she had a vision of herself completing a round-Manhattan swim. Thinking of her Channel distance she said to herself, "God, I'm halfway there."

Ridge's expenses in Manhattan for the swim will run to an estimated $7,000, half her Channel swim costs. She has financial backing from her health club, an insurance group, a swimsuit company and a bank. A musical agent, Steve Amiel, is searching for other sponsors, though he said recently, "Certain companies want a pristine image for their products, and because of Oh! Calcutta! they won't touch Julie."

But Ridge tries not to worry about money; she concentrates on her swimming. One April Sunday she went eight miles at an average speed of 30 minutes per mile, her best long swim ever. A few weeks later, on a typical training day, she woke at eight, lifted the cover from a 10-gallon fish tank in her apartment and said, "Good morning, kids," to Opal and Carny, her two corn snakes. Opal, four feet long, and Carny, a foot longer, are ideal pets for Ridge. They don't require a midnight walk in her seedy neighborhood on the fringe of the theater district, and their total food bill is only $5 a week, five 50¢ mice apiece.

The staple item of Ridge's diet is 59¢-a-pound turkey legs. She also eats whole grain cereals, peanut butter, fruit, salads and homemade spinach lasagna. She avoids red meat, refined sugar and refined flour, coffee, alcohol and all medications. She eats beneath a poster that depicts a society gent leaning against a Rolls-Royce. The caption reads: POVERTY SUCKS. She would like to make enough money in the theater or from doing commercials to own a sprawling condominium apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, to fly her own private plane and to build a repertory theater on the banks of Boston's Charles River. All it will take for a start, she hopes, is to swim around Manhattan Island twice, and for the right theater and advertising people to notice.

Ridge's present Manhattan apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up, is her 12th New York City residence in less than five years. It has an unfortunate history—the previous tenant was found strangled on the living room floor. Out the kitchen window, rising in the near distance, is one of Manhattan Plaza's two apartment towers. On this morning, after the five-minute walk to the swim club, she did a 1,200-yard warmup in the pool. Then she started her sprints, 12 of 100 yards, three of 500 and 10 of 50. Her flip turns were full of snap. A large man doddered toward her in midlane, expecting her to give way. At the very last moment he threw up his arm; she grazed his chest and plowed on.

After lunch she swam two consecutive miles, in 31:09 and 29:56, hurried through a 13-station Nautilus workout and, looking into one aspect of a possible film career, attended a meeting of stunt men and women. "I don't know how well I'd take a punch," she said, "but the pay is good, and"—the thought seemed to delight her—"it's a risky business."

A few days later, Ridge took a Circle Line tourist boat from the line's West 42nd Street terminal for the trip around Manhattan. It was a sort of inspection tour of the course for her July 10 swim. The island is bound on the west by the Hudson River and on the south, east and north by straits called the East River, by the Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The ocean tides that surge in and out of New York Bay to the south and Long Island Sound to the east of Manhattan can cause the currents in the various waterways to change directions in a matter of minutes.

Ridge will begin her swim from 89th Street on the East River at about 10 p.m., swimming north for half a mile through a wild confusion of currents called Hell Gate to the seven-mile stretch of the Harlem and Spuyten Duyvil. Then she will ride the tide down the Hudson to the Battery, the southern tip of Manhattan, for another 12 miles or so. The swim thus far is relatively easy, although the Harlem can be very foul. The Circle Line captain, a 22-year veteran, told Ridge, "I know guys who went in to save people and got ear infections. I've seen bodies, too."


"Double figures."

At the Battery, Ridge will head back up the East River. But her timing has to be precise. If she gets to the Battery in less than six hours, the current in the East River will still be flowing south, and she will have to swim against it until it turns. If it takes her more than eight hours to reach the Battery, the willful current will have turned north and then south again, and she will have to give up and go home.

Even with the current in the right direction, the East River is no piece of cake. In some places the tide rips along at more than five knots and there are beams from crumbling piers in those currents. There are whirlpools. There can also be three-foot waves, with deep troughs between them.

Last July, when Drury Gallagher set the 7:14:44 course record around Manhattan, he swam the seven or so miles from the Battery to East 89th Street in 90 minutes. Even a beer bottle can make it in 2½ hours, which means that any swimmer who has ever completed one lap around Manhattan has almost certainly done so in from 7:14:44 to 10 hours. Above 89th Street, on her second lap. Ridge will find the Harlem River is flowing the wrong way. If she gets there in 10 hours, she'll have to swim in place against the current for 2½ hours. If she gets there in eight hours, she'll go nowhere for four.

It would be very easy to quit at that point, for the Harlem will be no sweeter the second time around, the demands of the Battery no more considerate, the East River no more gentle. But Ridge doesn't dwell on those things. A few hours after her scouting trip on the Circle Line she stood in her kitchen, with Opal coiled around her waist, the snake's tongue flicking in and out, and sang her song: "No ocean's too wide/ No tide is too soon/ Challenge me, oooo, flood the sky/ And I'll swim to the moon."



Ridge's goals are as high as the downtown towers past which she'll swim—and swim.



The Manhattan fish will have this view of Ridge.



With Harvey to goad her on, Ridge has no trouble doing 60 or so "men's" push-ups in a minute.



Snakes alive! Ridge chats with a couple of her friends.