- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

In 1925, 18-year-old Gertrude Ederle, an American swimmer who had captured three medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics, embarked upon a titanic battle against the unforgiving ravages of nature. Ederle sought to do what no other woman had accomplished: Swim the 21-mile English Channel. Indeed, only five men, among hundreds of documented attempts, had achieved the feat. Ederle failed her 1925 attempt. In doing so, she elicited catcalls from the international press, which gloated over the accuracy of its consensus prediction that no woman could ever swim the channel.

Undaunted, the widely ridiculed Ederle returned to New York, determined more than ever to achieve her goal. On Aug. 6, 1926, 75 years ago come Monday, Ederle entered the English Channel at 7:09 a.m. at Cap Gris-Nez on the French coast to do battle once again with the forces of nature, including jellyfish, Portuguese men-of-war, the occasional shark, treacherous tides, 20-foot swells and 61-degree water that required her to layer herself with olive oil, lanolin and a blend of petrolatum and lard. The waters were so turbulent that day that steamship traffic was canceled in the English Channel, the world's most crowded shipping lane.

In a revolutionary decision that her detractors mocked, Ederle elected to forego the breast stroke, which the five successul male crossers had used, and decided instead to swim the channel using the crawl, a stroke universally deemed too strenuous for such a marathon swim. Despite the 18 world and 11 American records she held in swimming the crawl, albeit in races of 500 meters or less, London bookies put her odds at 5-to-1; Lloyds of London gave her father, a Manhattan immigrant butcher from Germany, 7-to-1 odds against his $25,000 bet.

A late afternoon squall generated swells so powerful that several people aboard tugboats monitoring Ederle's swim became violently ill. Despite his wager, her father and William Burgess, her coach who himself conquered the English Channel in 1911 on his 32nd try, pleaded with Ederle to quit. Each time they begged, she replied, "What for?" In effect, Ederle had made what amounted to a life-or-death decision: "After eight hours," she later confided, "I knew I would either swim it or drown."

At 9:40 p.m., 14 hours and 31 minutes after she entered the water, Ederle touched land on the English coast, swimming toward the bonfires that thousands of her fans had set on the beach in anticipation of her arrival. (Several cynical reporters had earlier left the scene, convinced Ederle would fail.) Not only had she become the first woman to swim the English Channel; in doing so she obliterated the men's record by nearly two hours. Moreover, experts later determined that the water's violent turbulence required her to swim 35 miles in order to cross the 21-mile channel. It would be another 24 years before a man swam the channel in faster time and 35 years before a woman did so.

Ederle briefly toured Europe after her achievement, where throngs wildly cheered her as "Gertrude of America." Returning to the United States aboard a ship, she was called to the upper deck, where planes circled the boat dropping bouquets in her honor. Days later, more than 2 million New Yorkers celebrated her historic achievement by crowding the streets of Manhattan for what was then the nation's biggest ticker-tape parade. Her fans repeatedly shouted her new nickname, "What for?" At least one national poll ranked her as the nation's top athlete of 1926 ahead of Babe Ruth.

In the 75 years that have transpired, Ederle's feat continues to rank among the greatest achievements in sports history. Indeed, without resorting to hyperbole, her coach declared in the wake of her achievement, "No man or woman ever made such a swim. It is past human understanding." Past human understanding? Yes, and now you know the answer to the question, "What for?"

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