It may be hard to imagine why anyone would want to have
witnessed 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle's swim across the English
Channel 73 years ago. Those who were on the boats that
accompanied her had to endure miserable weather, high seas,
frequent nausea and what was probably some pretty bad singing.
But the wretched conditions made Ederle's crossing, the first by
a female and then the fastest to date, an even bigger story--and
it was already huge. Among other fine consequences, Ederle's
swim would shatter prevailing notions about women's physical
limitations and give New York City an excuse to throw the
biggest ticker tape parade its citizens had ever seen. Who
wouldn't wish to have been around for that?
Ederle, the bashful and stocky daughter of German immigrant New
Yorkers, probably would not have counted instant stardom among
her incentives for making the swim. She wanted to bring honor to
the U.S., she said, but also her father, Henry, an Amsterdam
Avenue butcher, had promised her "a small roadster" if she made
it from France to England.
Of the hundreds of documented attempts to swim the Channel, only
those of five men had succeeded, and each had done so using the
breaststroke. At a time when the longest distance for a women's
swimming event in the Olympics was 400 meters, the idea of a
female covering 21 miles employing the crawl, a stroke then
considered too strenuous for distance swimming, was
laughable--at least to those who didn't know much about Ederle.
A 1924 Olympic gold medalist in the 4x100 relay who had set 29
world and national marks in the freestyle, Ederle had, in 1925,
broken another record by swimming the 21 miles between
Manhattan's Battery and Sandy Hook, N.J., in seven hours. That
same year rough seas forced her to quit her first attempt at the
Channel after about nine hours. This time she would keep going,
she said, "until I get there or I can't move."
On Aug. 6 at Cape Gris-Nez, she donned a two-piece black silk
suit that her sister Margaret had designed, with a tiny American
flag sewn over one breast. Gertrude slipped on a red rubber cap
and amber-glass goggles that she had waterproofed with wax and
white lead, then she layered on olive oil, lanolin and a blend
of petrolatum and lard--a mixture designed not only to warm her
in the 61[degree] water but also to protect her from jellyfish.
Knowing that bookies in London had set 5-to-1 odds against her,
Ederle looked at the gray sky and the surly surf and said,
"Please God, help me." Then, at 7:09 a.m., she plunged in.
One of the tugboats that accompanied Ederle that day carried her
father, her sister and her trainer, William Burgess, who in 1911
had finally swum the channel on his 14th try; aboard the other
was an assortment of reporters and photographers. At the outset
she set her stroke rhythm to Let Me Call You Sweetheart and
blithely sang along, until Burgess told her to save her breath.
As the day wore on and the sea turned even nastier, reporters
tried to keep Ederle's spirits up by reading--or, in some cases,
making up--cables from her mother, Gertrude. To keep their
spirits up, the reporters sang Yes, We Have No Bananas. Which
was true enough. Ederle's fuel for the trip included pineapple
juice, chicken legs, chocolate and sugar cubes, all of which had
to be delivered to her by a net on a long pole, for if she so
much as touched one of the boats, her attempt would have been
nullified. Not that touching a boat was a constant danger: There
were moments when the whipping waves, crosscurrents and changing
tides pushed Ederle well beyond sight of the tugs, leaving her,
she would say later, with "an eerie feeling."
In late afternoon a squall kicked up, creating severe swells
that battered Ederle and made several people aboard the tugs
violently ill. Fearing that Ederle was in danger, Burgess begged
her to quit. She yelled back, "What for?"
Soon enough she would be able to make out the bonfires lit by
people on the English shore. At 9:40 p.m. Ederle finally touched
land at Kingsdown, a few miles north of Dover, her intended
destination. She had swum 35 miles in rough water to make the
21-mile crossing, and she had done it in 14 hours and 31
minutes, nearly two hours faster than the previous record, set
in 1923 by Sebastian Tirabocchi.
When she returned to New York three weeks later, she was
accorded a hero's welcome, and not just by the two million
people who lined the parade route. President Calvin Coolidge
called Ederle "America's best girl," and New York mayor James
Walker equated her crossing to those of Moses, Caesar and
Washington. Irving Berlin would later write the song Trudy in
her honor. In at least one poll Americans voted her the top
athlete of 1926, ahead of Babe Ruth.
It was an exhilarating swell of fame, but it would pass quickly,
before Ederle had much chance to capitalize on it. She made some
money with a vaudeville act in which she would demonstrate
proper swimming strokes in a large tank of water, but after
going deaf in 1930 and suffering a debilitating back injury in
1933, she retreated to a life of teaching deaf children to swim
in the New York City area, where, now 93, she still lives.
Ederle's Channel crossing changed perceptions of female athletes
and inspired countless women and girls to take up swimming and
various sports. But it also had a profound effect on others. One
of the tributes Ederle cherishes came from one of the
sportswriters who had spent nearly 15 hours in a little boat,
watching her make history. He wrote, "I would not have swapped
my place in the tug this day, following Miss Ederle, for a seat
at the ringside of the greatest fight or at the arena of the
greatest game in the world. For this, in my opinion, is the
greatest sports story in the world."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN URAM Ederle's dubious decision to swim freestyle turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Fearing that Ederle was in danger, Burgess begged her to quit.
She yelled back, "What for?"