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Ederle, Gertrudefree

(23 October 1905–30 November 2003)
  • Ann T. Keene

Ederle, Gertrude (23 October 1905–30 November 2003), swimmer, was born in New York City, the daughter of Henry Ederle (pronounced EDD-ur-lee, with the accent on the first syllable) and Gertrude Hazerstroh. Both parents were German immigrants. At the age of five Gertrude, known as Trudy, was stricken with a severe case of measles that left her hearing impaired. The Ederles owned a butcher shop on the West Side of Manhattan; as she grew older Trudy worked in the shop after school and during the summer along with her five siblings.

A neighborhood pool provided recreation as well as relief from the summer heat for all the children, but Trudy became fanatical about swimming after taking lessons. She visited the pool as often as possible, and during annual vacations at the New Jersey shore she spent most of her time in the Atlantic, despite doctors' warnings that swimming would further damage her hearing. For that reason her father disapproved of her excessive interest in the sport, and later in life she often told the story of how he pulled her out of a city horse trough with harsh admonitions after she climbed in to have a swim.

At thirteen Ederle joined a New York women's swim club, which gave her year-round access to a pool. Encouraged by her sister Margaret, she decided to become a competitive swimmer, and at sixteen she achieved her first victory, winning the Metropolitan New York junior 100-meter freestyle championship. Over the next three years more successes followed in local and regional meets, and by 1924 she made the U.S. Olympic swimming team. At the games that year in Paris, Ederle and her three American teammates won the gold medal and set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay. She also won bronze medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle races. Ederle now set her sights on what seemed an impossible goal: becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel, the twenty-one-mile stretch of water between England and the European continent. Moreover she planned to use the crawl, a faster means of locomotion than the more conventional—and less strenuous—breaststroke employed by the five male swimmers who had already succeeded in making the crossing.

By 1925 Ederle had established herself as a world-class speed swimmer, having set no less than twenty-nine world and U.S. women's freestyle records. Leaving her amateur status behind to turn professional, she began preparing for the Channel event early that year, swimming a similar distance in seven hours between the Battery in Lower Manhattan and the beach town of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Backed by the New York Women's Swimming Association and other organizations, Ederle traveled to France in August and attempted a crossing from Cape Gris-Nez. The going was rough, and after nine hours she appeared to be faltering. Without her permission someone from the “sag-wagon” boat traveling alongside reached down and grabbed her arm. She was immediately disqualified because of interference—and she was furious, believing that she could have finished the swim.

More determined than ever, Ederle returned to France a year later to make a second attempt. Shortly after 7:00 a.m. on 6 August 1926 she again entered the Channel at Cape Gris-Nez, wearing what was then a revolutionary two-piece bathing suit that had been designed by her sister (more modest one-piece suits were then the accepted standard). She also wore goggles that she had designed herself, and sported a bright red rubber swim cap. To ward off the stings of jellyfish, as well as to add warmth—the water temperature was 61 F—she covered herself with a heavy coat of grease.

The skies were overcast and the Channel waters choppy as Ederle began making her way toward the English coast against strong tidal currents. She paused from time to time to accept nourishment—beef broth and bits of cold chicken—extended to her from the accompanying boat on a long pole. When concerned observers, watching her struggles, shouted, “Do you want to come out?” her reply over and over again was “What for?”

The persevering Ederle came on shore at Kingsdown, England, at 9:40 p.m., fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes after leaving France, thus becoming the first woman to swim the Channel. Tugged off course by choppy seas throughout the crossing, she swam some thirty-five miles, fourteen more than the distance at its shortest width. Yet she managed to beat by nearly two hours the previous record, set by the Italian swimmer Sebastian Tirabocchi in 1923.

Ederle sailed back to New York three weeks later and was astonished to find herself the recipient of a frenzied welcome from thousands of appreciative fans at the dock. Planes swooped down from the sky to drop huge floral bouquets on the deck of the ship, and after disembarking she led a parade up Broadway as an estimated 2 million onlookers cheered. Her fame spread nationwide, and the story of her achievement was front-page news. President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed her “America's best girl,” and the songwriters Charles Tobias and Al Sherman composed “Trudy” in her honor.

Now immortalized as the “What for?” girl for her persistent refusal to give up during the long swim, Ederle became America's favorite hero virtually overnight. A year later her status would be eclipsed by the aviator Charles Lindbergh when he made the first solo transatlantic crossing by plane. However short-lived her fame, Ederle, along with Lindbergh and the baseball legend Babe Ruth, were arguably the most famous public figures of the decade. All three became iconic figures in American popular culture.

In an age when the cult of celebrity was still in its infancy, the names “Ederle” and “English Channel” became closely linked and remained so for many years. Moreover Ederle's achievement had a lasting impact on sports, inspiring more women to become competitive not only in swimming but in other events as well. Sadly, however, the personal well-being that Ederle experienced from her achievement was short-lived, and she struggled to make a place for herself as an independent adult. As a professional athlete she no longer qualified for competition in amateur events, including the Olympics. Her education was limited—she had never finished high school—and she appeared to have little interest in anything but swimming. For several years she toured on the vaudeville circuit, giving demonstrations of the crawl in a water tank, but interest waned as the public, ever in search of novelty, turned its collective attention to the next distraction.

Ederle returned to her family and to recreational swimming as the Great Depression deepened. Plagued by increasing deafness that was aggravated by her Channel swim, Ederle received another blow to her health in 1933 when she fractured her spine in a fall down a flight of stairs. She had to wear a cast for nearly five years, severely limiting her mobility, and endured constant pain. She never fully recovered from the injury and suffered continuous discomfort as a consequence for the rest of her life.

Ederle's main source of support came from modest investment income. During the 1940s she supplemented these earnings by working at an airline at New York's LaGuardia Airport, checking flight instruments. For many years she was also employed as a swimming teacher for children at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City.

Ederle's record for a Channel crossing remained unbroken until 1950, when another American, Florence Chadwick, swam the distance in thirteen hours and twenty minutes. Ederle, however, refused to acknowledge Chadwick's accomplishment and maintained that her own record stood intact. Chadwick's crossing, she said, had been made in a far calmer sea than Ederle's and therefore “did not count.”

Ederle was a sturdy woman—at 5 feet 5 inches, she weighed nearly 150 pounds—and she often seemed more at ease in the water than on land. She never married, though in old age she told interviewers that she had received proposals; they went nowhere, she said, because of the social limitations caused by her deafness. For many years she lived anonymously in Queens with several roommates before moving to a nursing home in suburban Wyckoff, New Jersey. Confined to a wheelchair, she reportedly spent the remaining years of her life watching television and receiving occasional visits from assorted nephews and nieces. This routine was interrupted only by the arrival each year, a few days before the anniversary date of her famous swim, of newspaper reporters.

She died in Wyckoff.

Bibliography

Ederle's death was followed several years later by the publication of three major biographies: Glenn Stout, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World (2009); Tim Dahlberg, America's Girl: The Incredible Story of How Swimmer Gertrude Ederle Changed the Nation (2009); and Gavin Mortimer, The Great Swim (2008). The children's book America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle (2000), written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener, retells the story of Ederle's famous swim for younger readers. See also Kelli Anderson, “The Young Woman and the Sea,” Sports Illustrated, 29 Nov. 1999; in addition see Elliott Denman, “A Pioneer Looks Back on Her Unforgettable Feat,” New York Times, 30 Apr. 2001. An obituary is in the New York Times, 1 Dec. 2003.