- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

The 20-year-old swimmer had been in the icy water for four hours when her left leg grew numb, preventing her from kicking properly. The current was so powerful that for every yard she covered, she seemed to lose two. Her father and her coach took turns leaning over the side of the trailing boat and shouting, “You must come out!”

“No, no — what for?” replied the swimmer, fighting off nausea. So she struggled on for another 10 hours until 9:40 p.m., when her feet finally touched up on the sandy shore of Kingsdown, England, as hundreds of people cheered and waved flares.

The date was Aug.6, 1926, and Gertrude Ederle had become the first woman to swim the 21 miles across the English Channel. More than 270 persons have done it since, including adolescents and senior citizens. But at the time, only five men had successfully negotiated the daunting channel past jellyfish, Portuguese men-of-war and even sharks.

Ederle’s 15 minutes of fame stretched a bit longer than that. She was the first female athlete to be lionized by the public, and when she died of cardiac arrest Nov.30 in a Wyckoff, N.J., nursing home at age 98, she also was the last survivor of what has been called the Golden Age of Sports, a k a the Roaring Twenties.

How big a heroine was Ederle? More than 2million spectators lined lower Broadway, and ticker tape flowed from office windows when she returned to a parade in her native New York City. Mayor Jimmy Walker, no master of understatement, likened her feat to Moses parting the Red Sea and Washington crossing the Delaware.

Ederle herself was less melodramatic. After completing her epic swim, she told her dad simply, “It had to be done, and I did it.”

Shy and hearing impaired, Ederle was uncomfortable bathing in all the adulation. Though she had won a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics and set 29 world and American swimming records from 1921 through 1925, she longed for solitude. Unlike contemporary superstars Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones, et al, she faded quickly from public view. Once in a while, on a significant anniversary of her Channel swim, a reporter would come calling. Basically, however, Ederle spent the last 77 years of her long life out of the public eye.

Only she truly knew the determination and endurance her Channel swim required. The determination stemmed from a nearly fatal swimming accident when she was 8. Visiting her grandmother in Germany, the child fell into a pond and had to be rescued. Terrified, she vowed to learn how to swim. Back home, her father tethered her to a rope and shouted encouragement as she tried to dog paddle in a river near the family’s summer home.

“When somebody tells me I can’t do something, that’s when I do it,” Ederle told a reporter a few years ago. “I was very happy when I was swimming. I could have gone on forever.”

Ederle’s first attempt to swim the Channel, on Aug.18. 1925, ended in failure through no fault of hers. She was just 7 miles from British soil when her coach, Jabez Wolffe, pulled her out of the water because he believed her too nauseated to continue. She sobbed bitterly, and the international press crowed once more that no mere woman could master the Channel.

The first step Ederle took to improve her chances was to fire her coach. Replacing Wolffe, who had failed 20 times to swim the Channel, was Thomas Burgess — one of the five men who had done it. She also changed her technique, trading in the customary breaststroke for a new one called the crawl.

After months of training, Ederle was ready nearly a year after her first try. On the morning of Aug.6, she donned an outfit designed by her sister: red bathing cap, two-piece suit and goggles. After submitting to a slathering of lanolin, lard and olive oil to ward off the 61-degree water temperature, she literally took the plunge from Cape Gris-Nez, France, at 7:09a.m. Following on the tug Alsace were her coach, father, sister and other supporters. Reporters and photographers were in a second boat. In London, bookies were offering 5-1 odds against her.

Along the arduous route, Ederle used music to keep up her spirits. When she found herself swimming too fast, she sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and matched her strokes to the tune’s waltzing beat. When 20-foot swells began to batter her, she listened to reporters wailing another popular number of the day, “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” (Fortunately perhaps, no one recited Samuel Coleridge’s soggy line, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”)

When it was over, experts estimated that because of the rough water, she had swam 35 miles to cross the Channel. (Ederle herself said she had used 21,700 strokes, though how she calculated that number remains a mystery.) Her time of 14 hours, 31 minutes had broken the existing record by more than two hours and would stand for 24 years.

The swim’s impact on the public was immediate. Because of Ederle, it was said, more than 60,000 women earned Red Cross swimming certificates during the rest of the 1920s.

Ederle was bombarded with so many marriage proposals that a song was written called “Tell Me, Trudy, Who Is Going to Be the Lucky One?” (Snappy title, huh?) Instead of marrying — she never did — Ederle officiated at the opening of pools hither, thither and yon, swam in performances on the rapidly declining vaudeville circuit and even made a movie (“Swim, Girl, Swim”) in 1927. Yet when the public attention shifted to other heroes like Col. Charles Lindbergh for his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, she gladly yielded the attention and acclaim.

Ederle was making $60 a week as a swimming instructor in 1933 when she dislocated her spine after tripping on a staircase and subsequently spent four years in a cast. Doctors said she would never walk again. Meanwhile, her hearing, damaged during a childhood case of measles, grew worse.

With typical fortitude, Ederle fought back, recalling, “I had to learn to swim all over again.” Nonetheless, she was the hit of a water extravaganza at the 1939 New York World’s Fair — her last exhibition. After that, she worked as a dress designer, swimming instructor for deaf children and a mechanic during World War II.

Often during the rest of her life, Ederle seemed an almost ghostly relic of the Jazz Age, but her spirit remained an inspiration. Every female athlete since owes a vote of thanks to the stocky New Yorker who proved so long ago that “girls” could be sports superstars, too.

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