by Roger Childs

… when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.  –Gertrude Ederle

An extraordinary athlete

She died in obscurity at the age of 97 in 2003. However, back in 1926 she was a sporting sensation. Aged only 19, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel (La Manche) and broke the all time record by 2 hours. 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, daddy had promised her a new sports car – a roadster.

The later starter becomes a champion

Born in New York, Gertrude Ederle was 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.

This 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 coach Burgess twice 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 1920s 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, long distance swimming didn’t help and by 1945 was stone deaf. However, this encouraged her to devote her time in later years to teaching deaf children to swim.