Born Gertrude Caroline Ederle, October 23, 1905, in New York, NY; died November 30, 2003, in Wyckoff, NJ. Record-setting swimmer. In 1926, American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, and broke the previous record by some two hours despite strong winds against her. Ederle was just the sixth person to complete the 21-mile route between France and England, and set a new record time that remained for nearly a quarter-century afterward. "Ederle was a symbol of the Roaring '20s," noted New York Times writer Richard Severo, "a decade given as much to heroics as to materialism."
Born in 1905, Ederle grew up in the New York City area and came from a family of swimmers. Her father, a butcher who owned a meat market, first taught her how to swim by putting a rope around her waist when she was a toddler. Her parents owned a cottage in Highlands, New Jersey, and so Ederle and her siblings spent their summers swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. She had a bout with measles as a child, which caused some slight hearing loss. Doctors warned her to stay out of the water, fearing that dampness and bacteria would worsen it, but Ederle found it hard to stay dry.
Ederle emerged as a top competitive swimmer in the early 1920s, training at the Women's Swimming Association facility in Manhattan and setting new national records for her times in events. She went on to compete in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France. When she returned home, she began training for a 1925 swim from the tip of Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. She completed the course in seven hours, eleven minutes, and was hooked on record-setting distance swimming from then on. Later that same year she made her first attempt at swimming the English Channel, but came in after nine hours when her trainer, fearing she was in trouble when he saw her coughing, reached out from the boat to grab her. Under the rules of distance swimming, no member of her team was allowed to touch her while in the water.
Determined to try again, Ederle returned to France in August of 1926. Only five men had ever completed the route, and the media was intrigued by her moxie. Her daredevil stunt came at a time when there was tremendous bias against female athletes, based on the notion that women simply did not possess the physical strength for such challenges. On August 6, Ederle dove in just after seven a.m. off the coast of Cap Gris Nez, France, near Calais, on a morning when a red ball near the shore warned boaters of choppy seas. Over a modest swimsuit, she slathered herself in sheep grease, olive oil, and Vaseline for insulation, and gave firm instructions to her father, coach, and crew that she was not to be pulled out of the water unless she directly asked to be.
Ederle's journey was not exactly solo: alongside her training boat were two tugboats, one with her family and friends, and another filled with reporters, many of whom became seasick because of the rough waters. She plowed through the waters with an adept crawl stroke for the better part of a day. A southwest wind drove her off-course, and she actually swam the equivalent of 35 miles by the time she neared the shoreline of Kingsdown, in Kent, England. Her time was 14 hours, 31 minutes, two hours faster than the men's record. She had spurned the urgings of her coach, worried about the terrible weather conditions, to come in by calling out from the waves, "What for?"
Ederle's feat made headlines around the world. She was honored in New York City with a ticker-tape parade, and invited to the White House to meet President Calvin Coolidge, who called her "America's best girl." Nicknamed "Miss What-For," she did a stint in vaudeville and earned a reported $2,000 a week for it. She accepted the numerous speaking engagements that came her way, but turned down the countless marriage proposals that even inspired a popular song.
True to her doctors' predictions, Ederle's hearing worsened, and she faded from the public eye after appearing at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. During World War II she worked at LaGuardia airport as an aircraft instrument inspector, and taught deaf children to swim at a New York City school for the hard of hearing. She lived in Flushing, Queens, for many years, and spent her last seven in a New Jersey nursing home. She died at the age of 98 on November 30, 2003. Her record English Channel time stood until 1950, when another American woman, Florence Chadwick, bested it. Though she was a major celebrity for a few years after her 1926 feat, Ederle was modest about it, saying only when she arrived in Kent, "I knew it could be done," according to the Times of London.
Chicago Tribune, December 1, 2003, sec. 1, p. 11.
Independent (London), December 2, 2003, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2003, p. B9.
New York Times, December 1, 2003, p. A23.
Times (London), December 2, 2003, p. 33.
Washington Post, December 3, 2003, p. B6.