Ederle, Gertrude (1906—)

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Ederle, Gertrude (1906—)

American swimmer and winner of three medals at the 1924 Olympics before becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel, who set many international freestyle swimming records over short and long distance. Name variations: Trudie or Trudy. Pronunciation: ED-ur-LEE. Born Gertrude Caroline Ederle on October 23, 1906, in New York City; daughter of Henry and Gertrude Ederle (German immigrants and owners of a delicatessen on Amsterdam Avenue in New York); never married; no children.

Three-time medal-winner in the 1924 Olympics and record-setting swimmer of the English Channel in 1926. Records: 100 meters (1:12.5 on October 11, 1923); 150 yards (1:42.5 on March 1, 1925); 200 meters (2:45.2 on April 4, 1923); 220 yards (2:46.8 on April 4, 1923); 300 yards (3:58.4 on February 28, 1925); 400 meters (5:53.2 on September 4, 1922); 440 yards (5:54.6 on September 4, 1922); 500 yards (6:45.2 on September 4, 1922); 500 meters (7:22.2) and 880 yards (13:19.0) on September 4, 1922. Metropolitan New York junior 100-meter freestyle championship (1921); Olympic bronze medals in 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle, and gold medal in 4×100-meter freestyle relay team (1924). English Channel swim in 14 hours 31 minutes (1926).

America's Roaring '20s represents a decade of rebellion, personified by the short-skirted flappers and remembered for the consumption of spirits made illegal by passage of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. It is remembered more for its show of social excess than for the broader political questions raised by the appearance of women dancing the Charleston, going to speakeasies, and drinking and smoking in mixed company. The automobile, meanwhile, was providing a new level of mobility and opportunities to leave chaperons behind, helping to give rise to the so-called sexual revolution, along with the efforts of advanced thinkers like Margaret Sanger and her American Birth Control League. It was also America's Golden Age of sports, a period when people knew more about Ruth, Gehrig, and Rockne than Hoover, Coolidge, and Harding. Before the decade was over Red Grange would be featured on the cover of Time magazine, and New York City would hold a

tickertape parade that registered the triumph of a new kind of female athlete, the swimmer Gertrude Ederle.

In the 1920s, swimming was still so novel as a competitive sport for women that, on the day Ederle completed her swim of the English Channel, the London Daily News carried a story claiming that women would always be the physically weaker sex. Strenuous activity was still believed by many to be harmful to women and their potential offspring. Ederle's achievements helped to dispel these views in a field of athletics previously dominated by men, while she set records of achievement that were to hold for many years.

Gertrude "Trudie" Ederle was born on October 23, 1906, in New York City, the second child of Henry and Gertrude Ederle, German immigrants who operated a small delicatessen on Amsterdam Avenue. Young Trudie showed early promise while swimming at her family's summer cottage in Highland, New Jersey. At age 13, in 1919, she joined the Women's Swimming Association on New York's Lower East Side.

She was the catalyst that took thousands of women to the beaches and pools of America, as swimming became one of the leading women's sports in the United States.

—Janet Woolum

The Women's Swimming Association had been founded by Charlotte Epstein , who led the organization in promoting sports for women for more than 20 years. Epstein wanted the same opportunities in sports for women that men enjoyed, and she helped many young women achieve dreams. Before 1914, James Sullivan was president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and held to the traditional view that the physical frailties of women should bar them from participating in strenuous physical activities. In 1914, after Sullivan died, Epstein worked with the AAU to get an agreement to sponsor meets and to register female swimmers. She also attempted to coerce colleges and universities to change their swimming policies but with less success.

Epstein, hoping to improve Ederle's self-esteem, had encouraged the young girl to join the Women's Swimming Association after she had dropped out of school. (Trudie's sister Margaret Ederle also swam there, but she did not show similar promise.) Within a year, Ederle had won the national championships in both the 220-yard and 440-yard swim. In 1922, the first sign of her approaching stardom occurred when she came in first in a field of 51 swimmers, including the British champion Hilda James , in a three-anda-half-mile race across New York Bay to win the J.P. Day Cup. This was Ederle's initial race over a distance of more than 220 yards, and after her victory she went on to set at least nine amateur world records in distances of 100–500 meters.

In 1924, Ederle's growing prowess led to her selection for the American Olympic team. In the Paris Olympics, she earned three medals: bronze medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle and a gold medal as part of the winning 4×100-meter freestyle relay team, whose other members were Euphrasia Donnelly , Ethel Lackie , and Mariechen Wehselau .

By 1925, Ederle had decided to turn professional and swim the English Channel. In preparation, on June 15, 1925 she swam 21 miles from New York's Battery to Sandy Hook in New York's Lower Bay, in 7 hours 11 minutes, becoming the first woman to finish that course. That same year, her first attempt at swimming the English Channel failed six miles from the end because of cramping. Ederle did not want to quit, but her coach Jabez Wolffe had her physically removed from the water for fear that she might drown. Critics took this event as confirmation that women were physically inferior to men, while some publications discussed Ederle's strength as a detriment to her femininity, citing experts who held that you could not be a true woman and participate in such strenuous events. Humility, piety, domesticity and submissiveness were held as the prevailing characteristics of the ideal woman, and long-distance swimming was not within those boundaries.

The following year, Ederle's successful swim across the English Channel placed her name in the history books, as the sixth swimmer and first woman ever to accomplish the feat. The first long-distance swimmer to successfully complete the course had been Britain's Matthew Webb in 1875, followed by another Briton, Thomas W. Burgess, in 1911, and by Americans Henry Sullivan and Charles Toth and Argentinean Enrique Tiraboschi in 1923. Ederle's swim from Cape Gris-Nez, France, began in the early morning hours of August 6, 1926, at 7:09 am, with her body greased with lard by her sister Margaret. Almost 15 hours later, at 9:40 pm, when most of England had settled in for the evening, she arrived at Kingsdorn, near Dover. A storm had closed the area to all normal shipping throughout the day, and she had to swim through rain that began in the early afternoon, with increasing winds that made the sea choppy by early evening. Ederle's trainer, father, sister, and others, who were tracking her progress in a tug named the Alsace, tried to get Ederle to stop on at least two occasions, but she refused. In later interviews, she maintained that she finished the swim for her mother, who sent periodic radiograms that were read to her from the boat by her supporters. Throughout the day, the crew aboard the Alsace also sang patriotic songs, including the National Anthem, to help keep her spirits high. With Burgess, one of the former channel swimmers, serving as her coach, Ederle swam the 30–35 miles in 14 hours 31 minutes, setting a new record and breaking the previous male record by nearly two hours. Her success received front page coverage throughout the United States, England, France, and Germany. Newspapers now characterized her as courageous and determined, and praised her for her endurance and stamina as well her modesty, generosity, and poise.

Congratulatory notes arrived by the thousands. Some simply commended her while others extended invitations to be a speaker at banquets or attend special ceremonies like German Day, held on October 31. Huge crowds greeted Ederle on her return to France, on her visit to her grandmother in Germany, and on her arrival in New York City in late August 1926. Newspapers called her "Queen of the Waves," while Tom Robinson, the swim coach at Northwestern University, declared to news reporters that Ederle's swim marked a triumph over corsets and petticoats that had long kept women out of the pools and out of the gyms. Her record for a woman's channel swim would stand until 1964.

In New York, Ederle was welcomed by the mayor at City Hall and treated to a tickertape parade, but her triumph was to prove fleeting. Though her agent, Dudley Malone, lined up appearances for her throughout the nation, other news events soon caught the imagination of a fickle public. Moreover, Ederle discovered that she did not like all the public attention. Always shy, she was uncomfortable with the scrutiny, and in 1928 she suffered a nervous breakdown.

James, Hilda (1904—)

British swimmer. Born in 1904.

Hilda James won the silver medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920.

Lackie, Ethel (1907—)

American swimmer. Born on February 10, 1907.

American swimmer Ethel Lackie not only won the gold medal for the 4×100-meter relay in Paris in 1924, she also won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle.

Wehselau, Mariechen (1906—)

American swimmer. Born on April 15, 1906.

Mariechen Wehselau won the gold medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle in Paris in 1924; she also won the silver in the 100-meter freestyle.

In the early 1930s, Ederle endured another setback when she fell and injured her back. The spinal injury required that she wear a back brace for more than four years before she could return to swimming. By 1933, her swimming was also blamed for causing permanent deafness. Living with friends in New York City, she finally returned to swimming as a coach for deaf children. Her quiet life was interrupted on only two later occasions, when she was elected in 1965 to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and when she was inducted in 1980 into the Women's Sports Hall of Fame. Her accomplishments served as an inspiration to many other women who followed after her. In 1926, a writer for The New York Times may have described her achievement the best, calling her record-breaking channel swim a "triumph for femininity."


Associated Press and Grolier. The Olympic Story: Pursuit of Excellence. NY: Franklin Watts, 1979.

Besford, Pat. Encyclopedia of Swimming. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1971.

"Gertrude Ederle Swims the Channel," in The New York Times. August 7, 1926.

Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports: A History. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Markel, Robert, Nancy Brooks, and Susan Markel. For the Record: Women in Sports. NY: World Almanac Publications, 1985.

The New York Times. August 6–10, 1926.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

Leslie Heaphy , Assistant Professor of History at Kent State University, Stark Campus, Kent, Ohio