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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 34½-28-35⅝. 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.