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The Young Woman And the Sea
Kelli Anderson
November 29, 1999
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November 29, 1999

The Young Woman And The Sea


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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 4 x 100 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� 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.

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