Ederle, Gertrude Caroline (“Trudy”; “Gertie”)

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Ederle, Gertrude Caroline (“Trudy”; “Gertie”)

(b. 23 October 1905 in New York City; d. 30 November 2003 in Wyckoff, New Jersey), endurance swimmer who was the first woman to swim across the English Channel.

Gertrude Caroline Ederle was born in New York City; her birth certificate confirms 1905 as her year of birth, rather than 1906, which often appears in sources. Ederle was the daughter of parents who had recently emigrated from Germany. Her father, Henry Ederle, ran a successful butcher shop and delicatessen on Amsterdam Avenue on the West Side of Manhattan, in New York City. Her mother, Gertrude Anna (Haberstroh) Ederle, was a homemaker. The third of six children, “Gertie” learned to swim on the New Jersey shore at Highlands, where her family vacationed. Ederle’s older sister was also a competitive swimmer. Both girls received their swimming instruction at a remarkable institution called the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA) of New York, which had been founded in 1917. In its tiny pool on the Lower East Side of the city, the WSA trained several generations of women swimmers who went on to national and Olympic success, including the backstroker Eleanor Holm and the future Hollywood star Esther Williams. Ederle started serious training when she was thirteen years old. She was guided by the far-sighted coach Louis deBreda Handley, who revolutionized women’s swimming by championing the Australian crawl and increasing the leg action to a more powerful eight-beat kick.

Ederle began to excel at swimming just as the sport was emerging as a serious competitive sport for women in the 1920s. She made headlines at the age of sixteen when on 1 August 1922 she won the prestigious three-and-a-half mile Joseph P. Day Cup race in New York Bay. In the race Ederle defeated the world’s top female swimmers, including the American Helen Wainwright and the British champion Hilda James. Ederle also swam shorter distances, holding eighteen world records at one point in 1924 for distances ranging from fifty yards to one-half mile. Too young for the 1920 Olympics, the first games in which American women competed in swimming, Ederle was an obvious choice for the 1924 team. Hampered by an injury, she won bronze medals in the 100- and 400-yard freestyle as well as a gold medal for the four by 100-yard relay. Ederle’s training and travel took priority over her education, and she never graduated from high school.

With her combination of strength, speed, and stamina, Ederle was especially well suited for open-water endurance swimming. In that sport, women’s lower center of gravity and higher percentage of body fat gave them a competitive advantage over men. In 1925 Ederle established a new record (seven hours, eleven minutes, thirty seconds) for the twenty-one-mile swim from the Battery at the lower tip of Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, bettering both the previous men’s and women’s times.

Endurance swimming demanded strong bodies, and Ederle carried close to 150 pounds on a frame of about five feet, five inches and had unusually broad shoulders. Ederle’s physique drew the following praise from the New York Times: “In her street dress she looked like a healthy girl, a little on the bouncing order, but her dimensions were not very large.” Reporters were even more taken with Ederle’s demeanor. She did not smoke or drink and was not excessively interested in boys, a sharp contrast to the 1920s image of a Jazz Age flapper. In short, Ederle was an excellent role model for American girls.

In endurance swimming the English Channel occupied the place that the Matterhorn or Mount Everest did for mountain climbers. First swum by the Englishman Matthew Webb in 1875, the channel had only been bested by four men and no women when Ederle took up the challenge. Backed by the WSA, Ederle’s first attempt in 1925 ended in failure when she was pulled from the water after almost nine hours by a skittish coach who thought she was about to drown. Ederle publicly demurred, claiming that while she was not sure she could have successfully finished the swim, she was merely a bit seasick. Vowing to try again the next summer but aware that the WSA could not underwrite another attempt, Ederle made the difficult decision to give up her amateur status and seek commercial backing. In return for exclusive access to Ederle’s story, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News covered her coaching and training expenses and paid her way to Europe. Having made that investment, the newspapers made sure that Ederle received plenty of coverage in the weeks leading up to her second attempt to cross the channel.

At 7:08 on the morning of 6 August 1926, the twenty-year-old Ederle waded into the surf off Cape Gris-Nez, near Calais, France. She wore an unusual two-piece bathing suit designed to facilitate her powerful crawl stroke while being modest should she need to be pulled from the water. Ederle also wore specially crafted goggles and a cap and greased her body against the chilly sixty-one degree Fahrenheit water. She was accompanied by two boats. One boat carried Ederle’s father (her mother was too nervous to make the trip), sister, trainer, and several other swimmers who sometimes kept her company in the water. The second boat was filled with photographers and reporters, who radioed reports of Ederle’s progress back to shore on a wireless radio. Although the initial weather report had been promising, the weather deteriorated into heavy rain squalls and choppy seas. As in the previous attempt, Ederle’s trainer wanted her to quit, but Ederle yelled back, “What for?” Catching the favorable tide as she neared the English coast, Ederle waded ashore at Kingsdown, near Dover, after fourteen hours, thirty-one minutes in the water. Because of storms and strong tides, Ederle had swum nearly thirty-five miles, even though Dover and Calais are only twenty-one miles apart. Ederle not only had become the first woman to swim across the English Channel but also had bested the men’s record by almost two hours. As Will Rogers quipped, “Yours for a revised edition of the dictionary explaining which is the weaker sex.”

With her record-breaking swim, Ederle, her name abbreviated to “Trudy” for snappier headlines, found herself on the front pages of newspapers across America and around the world. The New York Daily News rushed to send eager U.S. readers photographs of Ederle emerging from the water. Two weeks later, after visiting her grandmother in Germany, Ederle returned to a hero’s welcome in New York City, including a ticker tape parade witnessed by two million people in lower Manhattan. A bright red roadster was waiting for Ederle when she returned to her father’s butcher shop after the day’s festivities.

The car was not Ederle’s only reward. Newspapers quoted her agent, Dudley Field Malone, as saying that almost $1 million of potential endorsements and opportunities had been offered to Ederle. Weighing her options, Ederle agreed to give swimming exhibitions in a portable tank for a traveling vaudeville show, earning a reported $2,000 a week. She also made a short Hollywood movie, Swim, Girl, Swim (1927). Ederle found performing in public unbearable and later admitted that she had a nervous breakdown because of the strain. Already extremely shy and awkward around strangers because of a childhood hearing loss that had worsened over the years, in part because of her swimming, Ederle later blamed her deafness for undermining her only serious relationship with a male suitor. She never married.

In retrospect it is clear that Ederle’s finances were badly handled by her agent. Most of the promised riches never materialized, although she always made it clear that she was comfortable financially. In 1933 Ederle fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a spinal injury so serious that doctors feared she might never walk or swim again. She slowly regained her strength and in 1939 delighted fans when she made a guest appearance at Billy Rose’s Aquacade as part of the New York World’s Fair. In the 1940s Ederle joined the war effort by checking aircraft flight instruments at LaGuardia Airport. She also taught swimming to children at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City. Ederle lived modestly with two companions in Flushing, Queens, New York City, largely forgotten by the public except when the anniversary of her channel swim rolled around each year. “Don’t write any sob stories about me,” Ederle cautioned a reporter in 1966, resisting all attempts to make her seem bitter or disillusioned about her life once she was no longer front-page news. Ederle spent her final years at a nursing home in Wyckoff, New Jersey. She died of natural causes at the age of ninety-eight.

Ederle did not set out to be a hero; she only wanted to swim the English Channel. As she put it simply, “I knew I could do it. I knew I would, and I did.” With the right combination of preparation, luck, and timing, Ederle won accolades for her athletic prowess that rivaled those showered on celebrities such as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, and Red Grange in the sports-crazy 1920s. Ederle’s achievement had feminist implications as well. It was a splendid example of the ways in which women were dramatically expanding their roles in all facets of American life, including sports. As she had predicted to a New York sports editor, “All the women of the world will celebrate, too.” Ederle truly was, in President Calvin Coolidge’s words, “America’s best girl.”

For a discussion of Ederle’s significance in history, see Susan Ware, Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from Our Leading Historians (1998). Ederle’s accomplishment is described in “How a Girl Beat Leander at the Hero Game,” Literary Digest (21 Aug. 1926): 52–67. For an appreciation of Ederle, see the New York Daily News (2 Dec. 2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times (1 Dec. 2003) and Washington Post (3 Dec. 2003).

Susan Ware