Gertrude Ederle

Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel has broken the men’s world record for the most swims across the English Channel after making her 35th journey. –Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 2020

Making history in the Channel

By Roger Childs

Chloe McCardel has made history 94 years after the first woman made the crossing. Back in 1926 American teenager Gertrude Ederle broke the all-time record at that time by 2 hours and became a sporting sensation. 

She started in calm conditions, but the notorious stretch of water became so stormy that ships stayed in port! Her coach urged her to abandon the attempt, but the gutsy New Yorker would have none of it. After all, her father had promised her a new sports car.

Chloe McCardel

The later starter becomes a champion

Gertrude (Trudy) Ederle was born in New York and taught to swim by her father at the age of nine. However it wasn’t until she was 15 that she became a regular swimmer. It was then plain that this girl was a natural in the water, and competitive over any distance.

  • Aged 12 she broke the world record for the 880 yards freestyle.
  • She broke 8 more world records between 1921 and 1925.
  • In all Gertrude held 29 US national and world records.
  • At the 1924 Paris Olympics she won a gold medal in 4/100 the relay and two bronzes over 100m and 400m.
  • Then in 1925 she won a 22 mile race off the coast of New York in 7 hours 11 minutes. The record stood for 81 years.

That New York swim however, was just a warm-up for her attempt to become the first woman to swim the 21 miles from France to England.

Success on the second attempt

Long distance swimming in cold water is one of the most unnatural of challenges. The essential struggle is between exhaustion and cold. –The Economist, 18 December 2003

Her first attempt ended in disappointment after a women she had trained with, ordered another swimmer to get her out when she was over half way across. Trudy tried to get back in the water, but was disqualified. Furious, she hired a new coach, T.W. Burgess, a man who had conquered the Channel a few years before. 

This was a time when sexism was alive and well, and on the morning of the second attempt a London paper published a front page article predicting another flop. The editor claimed that the failed 1925 effort showed that women were athletically inferior to men! If Trudy needed an added incentive, this was it!

Gertrude entered the water at Cape Gris-Nez, on the French coast, early on 6 August 1926. She wore 

 ~ a two piece swim suit 

 ~ a bathing cap 

 ~ watertight leather and rubber goggles she had designed herself. 

She was also covered in a thick coat of lanolin to protect her from jellyfish bites and the cold water.

Conditions at the start were calm and the New York teenager took off at her usual fast clip. Unfortunately squalls blew up part way across and twice Burgess suggested she abandon. No way! But conditions became worse and storm force winds whipped up heavy swells which kept fishing boats at their moorings in the English ports.

In the accompanying boat with the coach, were her father Henry and sister Margaret. To while away the time they sang 1902s hits to Gertrude, like Sweet Rosie O’Grady and After the Ball is Over.  Her father also reminded her, that if she failed to make it, there would be no new roadster (a 1920s two-seater sports car), as a present!

In the end Trudy swam 35 miles (the crow-fly distance is 21 miles), in a time of 14 hours 34 minutes. This beat the previous time by over 2 hours and establishing a record which would stand until 1950.

An instant celebrity

I knew it could be done, it had to be done and I did it!

The world media acknowledged her swim as a great sporting achievement and Gertrude Ederle was a celebrity everywhere she went. Back in New York she was given one of the biggest ticker tape parades the city had seen before or since. She was invited to the White House and President Calvin Coolidge called her “our American girl”. 

Ederle came to symbolize the strength and independence of the modern woman. –The Smithsonian

Sadly Gertrude had suffered hearing loss from a bout of measles in childhood and by 1945 was stone deaf. However, this encouraged her to devote time in her later years to teaching deaf children to swim. She died in obscurity in 2003 at the age of 97.