Gertrude Ederle, First Woman to Swim the English Channel, Dies at 98 -- December 1, 2003
WYCKOFF, New Jersey, December 1. GERTRUDE Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, died yesterday at a nursing home in Wyckoff, N.J. She was 98.
Ederle was a symbol of the Roaring 20's, a decade given to heroics. It was the age of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Charles Lindbergh, and Ederle's feat, which she accomplished only once and under terrible conditions -- she battled choppy waters, rip tides, cross currents, driving rain and mountainous seas, and was constantly threatened by floating debris, poisonous jellyfish and sharks -- made a memorable contribution to women's sports. In an age when many found it difficult to take female athletes seriously, Ederle had to be taken seriously because her time of 14 hours 30 minutes was more than two hours faster than the fastest of the five men who had previously made the swim from 1875 to 1923.
Because of the stormy weather, she had swum 35 miles in crossing the 21-mile-wide channel. Yet her time for the crossing stood for 24 years before it was eclipsed in 1950 by Florence Chadwick, who negotiated 23 miles in 13 hours and 20 minutes.
"People said women couldn't swim the channel," Ederle told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview marking the 75th anniversary of her feat. "I proved they could."
When she returned home, there were celebrations, receptions and a roaring ticker-tape parade for her in New York. She met President Calvin Coolidge, was paid thousands to tour in vaudeville, played herself in a movie ("Swim, Girl, Swim") and had a song and a dance step named for her.
"I thought it was marvelous, and I thought only Gertrude could have done it," another top swimmer from the era and a Masters great, Aileen Riggin Soule, said in a 1999 interview. "She had the stubbornness."
Ederle was little affected by the fame that followed. She remained what one writer called her, "an almost old-fashioned girl in a world of flappers." Soule, who toured with Ederle in a swimming exhibition, recalled her as "a sweet person -- thoughtful, kind. She even wrote poetry."
Ederele was born Oct. 23, 1905, in New York City, one of four daughters and two sons of Henry Ederle, a butcher and provisioner, and his wife, Anna. Her father owned a summer cottage in Highlands, N.J., and she learned to swim on the Jersey Shore.
She called herself a "water baby" and said that over the years, she was "happiest between the waves." But she developed a hearing problem when she was five, after a bout with the measles. "The doctors told me my hearing would get worse if I continued swimming, but I loved the water so much, I just couldn't stop," she said.
In the early 1920's, as a competitive swimmer, she set women's world freestyle records and American freestyle records for various distances from 100 to 800 meters. In a single afternoon in 1922, she broke seven such records at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Between 1921 and 1925, she set 29 national and world records.
In 1924, she was a member of the United States team that competed in the Olympics in Paris. She won a gold medal as part of the 400-meter freestyle relay, and she won individual bronze medals in the 100 and 400 freestyle events. It was no small accomplishment. She was swimming with an injured knee and, together with the other female athletes from the United States, she had an added handicap of fatigue. They were put up in hotels far away from the center of Paris because United States officials did not want them contaminated with what they saw as the city's bohemian morality. Ederle and her teammates had to travel five to six hours each day to practice in the Seine River, where the swimming events were held.
After Paris, she began to focus on the English Channel. The first person to swim it was Matthew Webb of England, who in 1875 made it in 21 hours 45 minutes. Of the four other men who succeeded before Ederle, none was faster than 16 hours 33 minutes.