Ederle, Gertrude Caroline ("Trudy")

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EDERLE, Gertrude Caroline ("Trudy")

(b. 23 October 1906 in New York City), swimmer who, at age nineteen, became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, demolishing the previous record by nearly two hours.

Ederle was one of six children (four girls and two boys) of the German immigrants Henry Ederle and Gertrude Hazerstroh, who lived on the West Side of Manhattan and worked in the family's butcher shop. To escape the summer heat, the young Ederle learned to swim in the neighborhood pool. Swimming soon became her passion. At age thirteen she joined the Women's Swimming Association of New York so that she could swim all year round. Her sister, Margaret, got her into competitive swimming. "I liked to fool around in the water, but I didn't like being serious about it," recalled Ederle. "Meg's the one who wanted to make me a champion." In 1921 Ederle captured the first victory of her career, winning the Metropolitan New York junior 100-meter freestyle championship. Her first major international recognition came in 1924 at the Olympic Games in Paris. As the lead-off swimmer on the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team, Ederle won a gold medal and set a world record with her teammates Euphrasia Donnelly, Ethel Lackie, and Mariechen Wehselau. She also won two bronze medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle races. Ederle turned professional in 1925. By then she had set twenty-nine world and U.S. women's freestyle records.

Ederle's next goal was to conquer the English Channel. Before 1925 only five men had succeeded in their attempts to swim across the channel, all using the conventional breaststroke. At a time when the longest distance for women's swimming in the Olympics was 400 meters, the idea of a female swimming twenty-one miles using the crawl was unthinkable. The stroke was considered too strenuous for distance swimming, although earlier in 1925 Ederle had swum a similar distance between Manhattan's Battery and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in seven hours. Her attempt at the English Channel in 1925 failed, however, not because of the rough seas but from a human error. After swimming for nearly nine hours, Ederle began to vomit the salt water she had swallowed. Someone in the attending boat grabbed her arm to assist, which led to her disqualification. "I was really mad," recalled Ederle, "because I knew I could make it." There was no stopping her a year later.

On 6 August 1926 at Cape Gris-Nez, France, Ederle donned a revolutionary two-piece bathing suit that her sister Margaret had designed and slipped on a red rubber cap and self-designed waterproof goggles; then she put on layers of grease, not only to keep her body warm in the sixty-one degree Fahrenheit water but to protect her from the jellyfish. Knowing that bookies in London had set five-to-one odds against her, Ederle looked at the gray sky and the gruff seas and said to herself, "Please God, help me." Then, shortly after 7:00 a.m., she waded into the water.

It is not hard to imagine the challenge Ederle was facing. Her fuel for the trip included cold chicken and beef broth, which had to be delivered to her by a net on a long pole, for her attempt would have been nullified if she had touched the accompanying boat. Her worst enemies were the turbulent waters and brutal tides, which pushed Ederle far off her planned course. When the weather became violent in late afternoon, those in the accompanying tugboat frequently asked, "Do you want to come out, Trudy?" She simply answered, "What for?" "What for" later became another nickname for Ederle. Finally at 9:40 P. M. Ederle touched the English shore at Kingsdown, miles north of Dover, her intended destination. She wound up swimming nearly 35 miles, 14 more than the 21-mile crossing. But Ederle completed her course in 14 hours, 31 minutes. Not only did she become the first woman to conquer the English Channel, she also obliterated the previous record of 16 hours, 23 minutes set in 1923 by an Italian man, Sebastian Tirabocchi.

Ederle received a hero's welcome when she returned to New York on a steamship three weeks later. As the vessel approached the city, she was asked to go to the upper deck. "The planes want to welcome you," Ederle recalled being told. "They want to drop flowers down." She went up there. It was not a joke. "The planes circled around and swooped down and dropped those bouquets," recounted Ederle. "They were just gorgeous. I never felt anything like that. I was proud, very, very proud." An estimated two million New Yorkers lined the parade route to heap their applause on their favorite daughter. The mayor James Walker equated her crossing to those of Moses, Caesar, and George Washington. President Calvin Coolidge called Ederle "America's best girl," and Charles Tobias and Al Sherman immortalized the heroine with their song "Trudy."

News of her success pushed the stories of the screen icon Rudolph Valentino's funeral and Jack Dempsey's training for his fight with Gene Tunney off many front pages. In at least one poll, Americans voted her the top athlete of 1926, ahead of the baseball player Babe Ruth. Ederle's swell of fame passed quickly, before she had much chance to capitalize on it. She made some money with a vaudeville act in which she demonstrated her crawl stroke in a specially built swimming tank. But mobility became a major problem for most of her adult life. In 1933 Ederle fractured her spine after toppling down a flight of stairs at her friends' home in Hempstead, New York. For the following four and a half years, she was in a cast and the pain never fully subsided. Also deafness, which some ascribed to her channel swim, plagued her for decades and made her rather reclusive. She never married. Ederle was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965 and into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

In an era when women were believed incapable of enduring strenuous physical activities and women's athletics were suppressed by the "anti-Olympics and antivarsity competition" movement led by women physical educators and sports leaders, Ederle's crossing of the English Channel helped to change perceptions of female athletes and inspired countless women and girls to take up swimming and various other sports. It also had a profound effect on others. "I would not have swapped my place in the tug this day," wrote a journalist who had spent fifteen hours in a little boat witnessing Ederle make history, "for a seat at the ringside of the greatest fight or at the arena of the greatest game in the world. For this, in my opinion, is the greatest sports story in the world."

Two good retrospective articles on Ederle's channel swim and her subsequent life are Kelli Anderson, "The Young Woman and the Sea," Sports Illustrated (29 Nov. 1999), and Elliot Denman, "A Pioneer Looks Back on Her Unforgettable Feat," New York Times (30 Apr. 2001). Biographical sketches may be found in Robert J. Condon, Great Women Athletes of the Twentieth Century (1991); Susan Ware, Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from Our Leading Historians (1998); and Janet Woolum, Outstanding Women Athletes (1998).

Ying Wushanley