Swimming Into History

Aug 16, 2013

On this day in 1926, Gertrude Ederle spent 14 hours and 31 minutes making history.

The 20-year-old from New York, who had won a gold and two bronze medals for the United States at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, became the first woman to swim across the English Channel.

Not only that, she beat the times of the five men who had accomplished the feat before her by nearly two hours despite straying off-course in the rough water and turning the 21-mile swim into a 35-mile adventure.

Ederle, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965, died in 2003, at the age of 98.

In Manhattan, the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, which includes an indoor pool, bears her name.



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And it's hard to imagine today, but 100 years ago, swimming was not common in the U.S. One woman changed that. She stepped into the cold water of the English Channel on August 6, 1926 and began a half-day swim from France to England, trying to find a place where she didn't feel the cold and time stopped.

GLENN STOUT: (Reading) Then it happened. For a few moments, she had not thought of her arms of her legs or the water or air. She simply listened to the sea and spoke to it not with words but thoughts, and felt the water ride over the sea bottom and sensed the way the wind pushed the waves flat and pressed her flesh as she slipped between the sea and the air. It was like sliding into bed and finding that place, that comfortable spot between the sheet and the coverlet, her head on the pillow and slipping into sleep.

YOUNG: Author Glenn Stout, reading from his book, "Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World." It tells Trudy's story, but it's also a history of swimming because Trudy really paved the way. This was early in the 1920s. Female swimmers were just joining brand-new organizations like the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union, and the WSA, the Women's Swimming Association. And many of them were joining because, like Trudy, they had some kind of malady. Trudy was deaf, and she loved swimming because in the water, she felt like she did not have a disability.

STOUT: She was only 13 or 14 years old, and the WSA was the first women's athletic group in the United States, was recruiting these young girls in New York City, 12, 11, 13 years old. All of a sudden, their exploits, their photographs were in the sports pages. And almost overnight, the United States discovered that we had this class of young women, and this is in the wake of World War I, you know, this class of young women who were athletes.

YOUNG: You write not until Mark Spitz emerged in the early '70s do the sport of swimming enjoy such a figure as dominant and charismatic as either Trudy Ederle or Johnny Weissmuller, who she often swam with. And you quote a sportswriter, who in 1923 was coming - trying to come up with the single greatest competitive achievement, and he had a laundry list. He concludes that no one could match Trudy Ederle who broke seven records in one year.

STOUT: Yeah. She was remarkable for a time in - from 1922 to 1924, almost every time she went in the water, she set a record of some kind.

YOUNG: Well, let's get her to the Channel then. Her first attempt to swim across the English Channel was in 1925. She didn't make it. But was she poisoned by her then-coach? Did her then-coach slip something into a beef broth drink that she took three-quarters of the way over, as you write?

STOUT: That's what she told people later. There was no question that she and her trainer at the time, Jabez Wolff, who was a man who'd tried to swim the Channel and failed almost 20 times, they didn't get along. He didn't think a woman could swim the Channel. And when Trudy failed - the weather did turn bad about halfway across. She got sick. She got seasick. She was vomiting. And afterwards, she very much did believe that someone, perhaps her trainer, had put something in her drink of beef tea. And that was the cause of her failure that year.

YOUNG: So back into the water she goes with a new coach this time, a man who had crossed the Channel and was very supportive of her. She's in the water with the tugboat accompanying. Onboard, her coach, her family, some journalists. But then suddenly, the seas changed. No swimmers can pace with her because they're all becoming sick. Tell us about just how intense this swim got.

STOUT: Well, there are actual newsreel footage of her swim that day. And, you know, the waves were running four feet high, then five feet high, then nearly six feet high. And here is this, you know, 19-year-old swimmer, this young girl swimming gamely along, while meanwhile on the tugboat, the journalists are getting sick. They can't stand it anymore. Boats all across the Channel are returning to shore, yet Trudy is gamely swimming on.

Her coach at the time, at a certain point, he decides that she can't make it anymore. But Trudy's father had made a promise to Trudy. Trudy had said, don't let anyone take me out of the water. And her father refused to allow Burgess to do so. They're following her because if you don't follow a Channel swimmer - this is where it differs from, you know, climbing Mt. Everest. You know, climbing Mt. Everest, you can turn around. Well, there's no turning around if you're swimming the Channel. That's why you have to have a boat with you, so if you get in trouble, you can be saved.

They're arguing on the boat whether she should continue or not. And, of course, Trudy is oblivious to this. She is just swimming. She is just doing what she does all the time, what she loves to do. And then at a certain point in the midst of this gale, she hears a voice call out that says, come out, girl, come out of the water. And she's absolutely shocked. She doesn't feel as if she's in any trouble at all.

YOUNG: And what does she say?

STOUT: She kind of rolls over on her back and she goes, what for?


STOUT: And everyone is completely taken aback. She is fine.

YOUNG: You write the phrase what for becomes a new catchphrase for kids in America replacing so's your old man.


YOUNG: And she does reach the shore and is celebrated and feted. It's stunning. You know, all she wanted to get out of it was a roadster. Her dad promised her a car. But she's one of the biggest names in the world at this point, a huge tickertape parade back at her home in New York. Then what happened? What - how did Trudy Ederle sort of disappear?

STOUT: Mm-hmm. It was all a bit overwhelming when she returned. She didn't know it was going to be that big a deal. And she did get the biggest tickertape parade in the history of New York at that time. She had a small nervous breakdown within just a day or two of coming back. She went on a vaudeville tour where she would swim in a tank and talk about her Channel experience, which was very, very grueling.

And I think at every step, from the moment she reached the shore of England, she realized that what she enjoyed was being in the water and swimming. What she did not enjoy was being the celebrity.

YOUNG: Well, you also write that her handlers really didn't understand the way of the world because soon after, within days, other people and other women crossed the Channel, and then more men started to cross the Channel. And they waited a little bit too long perhaps to - cash in is not the right word but to sort of solidify her. And she quickly was sort of elbowed out of the picture by all of these other crossings. Then she, later in life, fell and injured herself. And it sounds like she couldn't even walk for a while, much less swim.

STOUT: Right. Was essentially bedridden for months and months, and that turned into years. But then she was invited to swim at the New York World's Fair by impresario Billy Rose, who put on an enormous water show. And she - just as she was determined to swim the Channel, she willed herself into recovery and was able to swim again at this water show, which was sort of the last time she was really in the public view. And she began to be recognized not as a celebrity, which is what she hadn't liked, but as this pioneering athlete, which is what she truly was.

YOUNG: How big a name in sports do you think she is? Make the comparison.

STOUT: I think she's as big a name in sports as Jim Thorpe, as Jackie Robinson, as Babe Didrikson, as anyone who was the first. And I think it's a measure of just how important she was, how quickly she was forgotten because she changed everything so fast.

Before 1926, there were no female athletes. On the day she swims the Channel, the International Olympic Committee decides to admit women's track and field to the Olympics. When she swam the English Channel and beat the men's record by two hours, which I think is just really remarkable, that took away any argument that could be made that women were not equipped either psychologically or physically or emotionally to compete as athletes.

YOUNG: Glenn Stout, the book "Young Woman And The Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered The English Channel And Inspired The World." We spoke in 2009.


YOUNG: And Meghna, I think that it's appropriate that we exit the stage and go find a pond...




YOUNG: ...and swim in Trudy's honor.

CHAKRABARTI: I feel so sedentarily all of a sudden while listening to her story.

YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.