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Gertrude Ederle

The first woman to swim
the English Channel


Gertrude Ederle always felt she was "happiest between the waves", and therefore must have been exuberant when on August 6, 1926, she spent fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes in very choppy seas to swim from Cape Gris-Nez, France to Kingsdown, England to become the first woman to achieve this feat. She was only nineteen. It was actually her second attempt, for on a previous attempt a year earlier, a crew member in a support boat, thinking Ederle was in trouble, reached out and touched her, thereby disqualifying the attempt. But on this attempt, the only thing that went awry was the fact that due to the choppy seas, Ederle actually swam 35 miles against a sweeping current, when the actual distance was only 21 miles. Even so, Ederle beat the records of the five previous crossings between 1875 and 1923; records all set by men.

Born on October 23, 1905, in New York City, Ederle and her family spent the summers at the family cottage on the Jersey shore where she learned to swim. As a competitive swimmer in the 1920's, she set many american and world freestyle records for various distances and between 1921 and 1925, Ederle held 29 such records. In 1924, Ederle was a member of the U.S. Olympic team which competed in Paris and was awarded both gold and bronze medals as a result of her efforts. After the Olympics, she began to focus on the channel crossing.

People said women couldn't swim the channel, I proved they could.

On August 27, 1926, an estimated two million people welcomed Ederle home with a ticker-tape parade through New York City's financial district. President Calvin Coolidge invited her to the White House, calling her America's best girl. She was paid handsomely to join a vaudeville tour, went to Hollywood, made a ten-minute movie about herself (Swim, Girl, Swim), and received unrelenting marriage proposals. But a hearing problem from childhood was worsened by the channel swim and by 1940, she was completely deaf. In the '50's, Ederle taught swimming at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York and added income by endorsing swimming pools.

In 1950, American Florence Chadwick finally broke Ederle's record, twenty-four years after it was set, but Ederle insisted it was still hers, since the new time of thirteen hours and twenty minutes was set in calm seas. The news media kept Ederle's memories alive with commemorative articles every five years, but it seemed journalists were the only ones who remembered. Contemporaries of long ago, like Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, may have had more enduring fame, but Ederle out lived them all and had no regrets.

Don't weep for me, don't write any sob stories.....I have no complaints....I am not a person who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars.

Named by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 100 female athletes of the twentieth century (ranked 42nd), Gertrude Ederle passed away on November 30, 2003, at the age of 98.


Sources:
New York Times; December 1, 2003
http://www.msu.edu/~grawbur1/iahweb.html
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/siforwomen/top_100/42/

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