People: Gertrude Ederle
Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003)
During the Golden Age of Sports, superstars like Ruth, Dempsey, Tilden and Grange fueled a national obsession with sports. In the summer of 1926, a teenager nicknamed Trudy pushed these iconic names from the headlines. Gertrude Ederle did what the experts claimed no woman could do-she swam the English Channel, and did it faster than anyone in history. This is her story...
Gertrude Ederle was born on October 23, 1905 in New York City to Henry and Anna Ederle. Gertrude's father was a butcher. He owned Ederle Brothers Meat Market on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. A German immigrant, he made a comfortable living in his new country. The Ederles had six children-four girls and two boys. Gertrude's mother introduced her to swimming as a toddler, lowering her into the water on a rope.
The Ederles spent their summers in a cottage they owned in Highlands, New Jersey, about 20 miles south of the city, where the Shrewsbury River meets Sandy Hook Bay. Gertrude adored getting wet. After returning to the city she would look for any chance to get in the water-any water. Once she was caught swimming in the horse troughs on 10th Avenue.
Gertrude fell in love with the sport of swimming as a child after the family attended an exciting swimming exhibition at a club on the Jersey Shore. It was Gertrude's older sister Meg who encouraged her to actually get serious about swimming. Even after Gertrude began swimming competitively, it was Meg who often filled out and sent in the entry forms.
Gertrude joined the Women's Swimming Association in Manhattan early in her teens. The organization was still in its formative years and did not have the funding to hire a top coach. Into the breach stepped Louis de Breda Handley, a swimming coach who had found a way to modify the Australian crawl to make it even faster. Today that stroke is known as the American Crawl. Handley recognized that women were more buoyant than men and were thus better suited to the crawl, particularly in longer events.
Gertrude was one of Handley's first protégés. So proficient was she with his six-beat crawl that he encouraged her to perfect an eight-beat version, where she kicked her legs four times each time she brought an arm forward. There are swimmers today who cannot make the jump from six to eight.
Handley's theories were proved correct by Gertrude when she was 16. She entered the 1922 Joseph P. Day Cup, a 3.5-mile swim from Brighton Beach to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn that attracted world-class distance competitors, including American champion Helen Wainwright and British champion Hilda James. Prior to this, Gertrude's longest race had been 220 yards. Gertrude easily outswam the entire field.
The founder of the Women's Swimming Association, Charlotte Epstein, was also important to Gertrude's career. She would eventually coach her swimmers to 52 world records. She also served as the Olympic swimming coach during the 1920s.
Gertrude first came into world focus at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. She was first in the water for the U.S. 4 x 100 relay squad, teaming with Euphrasia Donnelly, Ethel Lackie and Mariechen Wehselau. They took home the gold with a world record of 4:58.8. Gertrude also won bronze medals in the two individual freestyle races. In the 100 meters she finished behind sprinters Lackie and Wehselau. Gertrude had actually won her preliminary heat, so it was no surprise when this final went down to the last 15 yards.
In the 400 Gertrude finished behind long-distance mermaids Marta Norelius and Wainwright. Wehselau was a Hawaiian star swimming for the U.S., while the Swedish-born Norelius, just 15, was also swimming foe America.
Most of the women's swimming team members were teenagers, including Gertrude, who was 19. The U.S. Olympic Committee was so keen on protecting their collective virtue while in Paris that they actually had the girls sequestered in living quarter more than two hours outside the city. Gertrude and her pals still managed to get out and fun in the City of Lights.
By the time Gertrude turned her attention to professional swimming, she owned 29 world and U.S. records, most between 100 to 500 meters. The long-distance swims began in 1925. This was an immensely popular sport at the time, totally captivating a worldwide audience. The Holy Grail was the English Channel, which had been conquered by five men but never a woman.
The challenge of long-distance swimming is complex, and far more dangerous than many people realize. To keep the limbs working the heart pumps blood to the extremities. Because of the cold water the blood cools significantly on its way to and from the limbs, and returns to the body's core at a temperature that can throw internal organs into a hyperthermic state. A swimmer must stay in constant motion to keep the body temperature from dipping to dangerous levels. This is exhausting, of course. The problem is that long-distance swimmers can't stop and rest or they will pass out and drown.
Charlotte Epstein was an early women's rights crusader who believed that marathon swims were a good way to establish equality with men. Eppie's Girls would be the first to launch an legitimate assault on the 20-plus mile test of strength and endurance. Epstein first tabbed Helen Wainwright to attempt the Channel crossing. But when Wainwright sprained her ankle hopping off a New York trolley, Gertrude was next in line. They Women's Swimming Association agreed to finance her first try.
Gertrude's "warmup" was a 21-mile swim from the lower tip of Manhattan to Sandy Hook. She completed it in 7 hours, 11 minutes-a record for both sexes that has yet to be broken. The trophy Gertrude was awarded for her effort is still on display in her summer hometown of Highlands. Then it was off to France.
The distance across the Channel at its shortest swimmable point is about 21 miles. However, shifting tides and currents demand that a swimmer zig-zag to take advantage of the most favorable water conditions. The England-to-France swim was favored by most because the waters were easier to "read." Team Ederle felt that her strengths were best suited for a France-to-England attempt.
The record for completing an English Channel swim belonged to Sebastian Tirabocchi, who crossed the channel in 16 hours and 23 minutes in 1923. The first authenticated crossing was accomplished by Matthew Webb in 1875. The most famous Channel swimmer was probably William Burgess, who tried and failed more than 30 times before completing the journey in 1911. His experience was more the rule than the exception-the vast majority of attempts ended in disappointment.
Gertrude's first try, in the summer of 1925, was unsuccessful. She battled through frigid, choppy waters for nine hours before becoming seasick. Her trainer, Jabez Wolffe, riding alongside her, tried to pull her from the water, fearing that she had passed out. This instantly disqualified her. Gertrude insisted that she could have made it. After this disappointing outcome she fired Wolffe and replaced him with-who else?-William Burgess!
Gertrude returned to France for her next try in June of 1926. She was well paid for her second attempt. She had negotiated contracts with the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News which paid her a salary while she trained and a bonus for the exclusive interviews she later gave the papers. On top of that her father had made a sizeable bet in England and stood to collect more than $150,000.
That summer, four accomplished female swimmers were training for a Channel crossing. Gertrude headquartered herself in France, as did Lillian Cannon, from Baltimore. Cannon was being funded by the Baltimore Sun. Reporters for the News, Tribune and Sun fired off stories that fed fan interest in the U.S. and created a budding rivalry between the women.
Across the water in England, Mille Gade and Clarabelle Barrett-also Americans-were training feverishly. Barrett launched her effort three days before Gertrude and got within a couple of miles of France before she became disoriented in the fog and was pulled from the water. Gade would successfully swim the Channel three weeks after Gertrude, but her time was longer by some 50 minutes and thus she was relegated to the shadows of history.
Gertrude officially entered the water at Cap Gris-Nez five minutes after 7:00 on the morning of August 6. There were small-craft warnings at the time. She coated herself with a blend of olive oil, vaseline and lanolin to insulate her and help her glide through the sixty-degree water. She wore a two-piece suit-unusual in that era-along with goggles and a cap. Long-distance swimmers typically swam in the nude, but because of the number of people watching her Gertrude had to design her own suit. The one-piece wool suits of the era had too much drag.
Gertrude's father and sister Meg were among the passengers in a support tug that moved alongside her, as was her trainer, Burgess. So too was Julie Harpman, the Daily News reporter promised the exclusive by the Ederles. The News was adamant about not letting scribes from competing papers aboard, so they pooled their money and hired a second tug, which at times drifted close enough for Gertrude to touch. To do so, of course, meant instant disqualification. Afterwards some of those same reporters would try to discount her feat by saying that she had been shielded from the elements by the two tugs!
The weather certainly was not cooperating. High winds and strong tides made every stroke a struggle. A squall kicked up in the sixth hour that threatened to drown her. Twelve hours into the swim Gertrude hit a particularly rough patch and was barely making any progress. Burgess called for her to come out. "What for?" she yelled back and kept swimming.
Gertrude was midway through the final and most difficult leg of the swim. She had worked the tides for 10 hours and by her calculations now had to fight her way to shore for around five more. It was all about stamina now, and that she had plenty of. Her supporters read letters from her mother aloud to keep her spirits up. Her father promised to buy her a red sportscar if she kept swimming. Her sister sung popular songs. When Gertrude needed food a bottle of chicken broth was run out to her on a string.
Fourteen hours and 31 minutes after she started, Gertrude walked out of the surf at Kingsdown, bleary-eyed and chilled to the bone. The last light had long faded over the horizon-it was now past nine o'clock-but searchlights and bonfires lit the sky. She was greeted by an English official who asked to see her passport.
Gertrude had beaten the old record by almost two hours. The Channel crossing was 21 miles as the crow flies, but strong tides and swirling waters forced Gertrude to swim 35. "It was past human understanding," Burgess would later say.
Gertrude sailed home to her native New York on August 27th and was feted with a tickertape parade. Two million people lined Broadway for a glimpse of the teenager. Mayor Jimmy Walker compared her achievement to Moses parting the Red Sea and Washington crossing the Delaware. Later she met President Calvin Coolidge and played herself is the one-reel film Swim Girl, Swim. Gertrude was also celebrated in song. Irving Berlin, Charles Tobias and Al Sherman published sheet music for a popular ditty entitled "Trudy."
Gertrude was not the first celebrated female athlete in America-tennis star Helen Wills, for one, was immensely popular min the mid 1920s. Gertrude, however, was the first to earn fame and respect for doing what male athletes did. And of course in this case she had actually outdone them.
For a year or two after her Channel swim, Gertrude cashed in on that fame. She signed with the William Morris Agency and toured the country making celebrity appearances and demonstrating her record-smashing stroke in a specially constructed collapsible tank during vaudeville productions. But it wasn't in Gertrude's nature to self-promote. Though she never shrank from a challenge, she was basically shy and retiring.
In 1928, Gertrude started experiencing serious problems with her hearing, which was attributed to her two Channel swims. Her hearing had been poor dating back to a childhood bout of the measles. Doctors had warned her that swimming in cold water would only make things worse. Exhausted by the endless swirl of celebrity, she suffered what some have characterized as a nervous breakdown.
In 1929, Gertrude was engaged to be married. Her fiancée, spooked by her encroaching deafness and jangled nerves, broke things off. Gertrude never married. ''There never was anyone else," she once explained. "I just didn't want to get hurt again.''
In 1933 Gertrude slipped in a stairwell at the home of friends in Long Island and suffered a fractured vertebrae. She was in varying degrees of pain-often excruciating-for the rest of her life. She wore a cast until 1937. Gertrude cut down on her public appearances, but made several guest appearances at Billy Rose's Aquacade at the New York World's Fair.
By the 1940s, Gertrude had almost completely lost her ability to hear. However she was still a productive citizen. She worked at LaGuardia Airport checking flight instruments. After World War II she was offered the same job but in Oklahoma. She turned down the offer.
Gertrude became somewhat reclusive after that. She shared an apartment with two friends in Queens and spent the bulk of her public time in the company of deaf children, whom she taught how to swim at the Lexington School for the Deaf. She enjoyed the rapport they shared. They trusted her, Gertrude liked to say. Not until the 1990s, with the advent of high-tech hearing aids, did she regain a modicum of hearing.
In 1950, Gertrude's women's record was finally broken. Florence Chadwick swam the Channel in 13 hours and 20 minutes, shaving more than an hour off the 1926 time, albeit it in calm seas. Gone from the spotlight but hardly forgotten in the postwar years, Gertrude continued to teach children the fine art of the breaststroke. In 1954, Gertrude was immortalized on a bubblegum card by Topps in a series that celebrated great moments in American history. When the International Swimming Hall of Fame was created in 1965 she was among its first group of inductees.
Gertrude lived out her finals days at the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, New Jersey. She passed away on November 30, 2003 at the age of 98.
Gertrude Ederle's name can be found on almost any list of all-time great athletes. She is also counted among the pioneering women of the 20th century. But when she came out of the water that night in Kingsdown, she was part of an even more elite group-the one whose members went to sleep each night wondering how high, how long and how far, but never how dangerous. Charles Linbergh joined this group a year later when he took off across the Atlantic.
'"It was just that everybody was saying it couldn't be done," Gertrude once explained. "Well, every time somebody said that, I wanted to prove it could be done. It took a Yankee to show them how!"