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the first woman to swim the English Channel
Gertrude Caroline Ederle was born in New York City, New York, on October 23, 1906, the daughter of a successful butcher. It was her mother who taught Trudy to swim, by tying a rope around her and letting her down into the water. Dangling from the end of the rope, she learned to dog paddle; within three days, she had learned to swim. Three years later Mrs. Ederle took Trudy and her five siblings to a swimming exhibition, and it was there that Trudy decided she wanted to swim like the experts. Only four years after her mother taught her to swim, Trudy set an eight-hundred-yard freestyle record with a time of thirteen minutes and nineteen seconds; at the age of twelve she had become the youngest person to break a non-mechanical world record.
Trudy dropped out of high school after her first year and registered with the Amateur Athletic Union. At the age of fourteen, she defeated fifty-one other women in a three-and-one-half-mile international race from Manhattan Beach to Brighton Beach. By the age of seventeen she held eighteen world swimming records and was a member of the United States Olympic swimming team. At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, she won a gold and two bronze medals. In 1925, she swam the twenty-one mile distance from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in seven hours and eleven minutes, beating the men's record. By this time she held twenty-nine national and world records.
Swimming the English Channel
With funding from the Women's Swimming Association, Ederle first attempted to swim the English Channel on August 18, 1925. Eight hours and forty-six minutes into the swim, and only six miles short of the finish, she was engulfed by a wave and stopped to spit the salt water out of her mouth. Her trainer thought she was in trouble and called to a man swimming alongside her to grab her, thus disqualifying her.
Because the Women's Swimming Association did not have the financial resources to sponsor another attempt, Ederle was "forced" to sign a contract with a newspaper publisher, elevating her to professional status and, therefore, making her ineligible to participate in future amateur competitions.
Accompanied by her father, her sister Margaret, and her trainer, Thomas W. Burgess in a tug boat, Ederle made her second attempt to swim the Channel on August 6, 1926. At 7:08 A.M., after securing a promise from everyone that she would not be pulled out of the water unless she asked, Ederle entered the water at Cape Gris-Nez, France. Despite rain, heavy currents, and high winds, she walked ashore at Kingsdown on the Dover coast of England at 9:35 P.M., becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel. Although the heavy sea had forced her to swim thirty-five miles to cover the twenty-one mile distance, she had broken the time record of the fastest man by one hour and fifty-nine minutes.
Ederle returned to New York to a heroine's welcome that included the first-ever ticker tape parade held for a sports figure. Promoters, manufacturers and motion picture producers were lined up to solicit endorsements of every kind. The offers totaled $900,000, and included a $125,000 contract for a twenty-week stage appearance and another for a forty-week theatrical offer. Never before had a swimmer been given such an opportunity for fame and fortune.
Ederle eventually signed a contract with the William Morris Agency to tour for two years in vaudeville as a swimmer. She even co-starred with Bebe Daniels in the film Swim, Girl, Swim. Her fame was not destined to last, however. Her record as the only woman to successfully swim the English Channel had lasted less than a month when Amelia Gade Corson made the crossing on August 29. Ederle's record time was also subsequently broken, when a German man named Vierkoetter swam the Channel in twelve hours and forty-three minutes. Her hearing, impaired since childhood and further damaged by her Channel swim, eventually deteriorated into deafness. In 1933 Ederle suffered a fall that severely injured her spine and put her in casts for almost four years; nineteen neurologists said she would never again walk unaided again. Ederle defied the neurologists' opinions, however, and appeared in Billy Rose's Aquacade at the New York World's Fair in 1939. She spent the World War II years working in an aircraft plant. After the war she focused her efforts on teaching deaf children to swim. In 1965 she was one of the first twenty-one inductees into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Gertrude Ederle died in Wycoff, New Jersey, on November 3, 2003.
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This page was last updated on September 04, 2018.