- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009



By Glenn Stout

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 352 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Priscilla S. Taylor

You need not care one whit about swimming, women breaking sports barriers or events of the 1920s to be gripped by sportswriter Glenn Stout’s fast-paced account of how, in 1926, a partially deaf, 19-year-old New Yorker became the first woman to swim the English Channel.

Gertrude Ederle, the second of three daughters of a butcher-shop owner and his wife, learned to swim in the sea off the Highlands, N.J., fishing village/beach community close to the ethnic neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.

Trudy had been born in 1906, two years after the sinking of the General Slocum passenger steamship in the East River in which 1,021 day-trippers died because they didn’t know how to swim. As the author explains, “swimming was practiced by only a few men and virtually no women, for in the Victorian era swimming, for a woman, was considered immoral. Learning to swim was taboo.”

Trudy’s father first put her in the water near their summer cottage with a rope around her midriff when she was 7 or 8, and she never looked back. In 1918, the Women’s Swimming Association — virtually the first athletic organization for women — offered lessons in an apartment house basement near her home in Manhattan, and Trudy and her sisters began together to learn under an innovative Italian teacher, Louis de Breda Handley. He taught them the American crawl, which he believed to be the fastest stroke as well as the easiest to learn, in contrast to the breaststroke and the trudgeon more commonly taught. Both Margaret and Trudy spent untold hours in the water and quickly excelled.

By the time Trudy was 15, she had startled the Amateur Swimming Association by winning the 3 1/2-mile Joseph P. Day open-water race across New York Bay, beating the best-known champions of the day. “It was nothing new to her, this long-distance ocean swimming, even in the wind and the rain. No one outside her family knew it at the time, but of all the swimmers in the race, none had more experience swimming in the ocean. What was a new and somewhat intimidating challenge for most of the swimmers was, for Trudy, as familiar as an evening bath. Summer after summer swimming at the Highlands made her completely comfortable in the open water. … The other girls swam to get back to land, but Trudy swam, well, to get away from everything, and doing so, out in the water she found her own true self, the place where she felt most comfortable.”

When the journalists descended on her, one described her as “that almost extinct person … the normal, healthy, pretty, sport-loving, fun-loving, home-and-family-loving American girl ….” And Trudy, who said she “never dreamed she could win,” had a new goal: “Win some more races… and go to the Olympic Games.”

By the time the Olympics approached in 1924, Trudy was dominant in her sport, having won countless competitions in the United States and having set records at every imaginable distance. As a result, Trudy was bitterly disappointed in Paris to win only one Olympic gold (as part of the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team) and two bronzes (in the 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle).

Given Mr. Stout’s description of the primitive training conditions on the ship to Europe, combined with inadequate housing and cramped busing of swimmers over bumpy roads to their distant pool, it seems miraculous Trudy did as well as she did in Paris. (The American Olympic Committee, meanwhile, lived and traveled in comfort.) What challenge remained but to swim the English Channel, which five men but no women had conquered?

When Trudy made her first, unsuccessful attempt from Cape Griz-Nez, France, in 1925, coached by Jabez Wolffe, an arrogant Scot who had failed in literally dozens of attempts himself and was convinced Trudy could not succeed, the play-by-play is excruciating. She was pulled out of the water after nine hours when her crew judged her to be in serious trouble.

When she tried again the next year under the tutelage of Bill Burgess, an Englishman who had succeeded in crossing in 22 hours on his 16th try, the account is only slightly less nerve-racking. Once again, when she was well into her crossing her crew grew anxious and suggested pulling her out of the water, to which she responded, “What for?” and went on swimming and singing to herself.

The descriptions of the interaction between Trudy and her crew, Mr. Burgess’ plotting of the Z-shape route, the almost hourly press dispatches sent, the hazards Trudy overcame as the storms came, the swells grew and the tide changed earlier than expected are breathtaking. In the end, Trudy resisted all calls to quit, and achieved her goal in 14 hours and 31 minutes, more than two hours faster than any previous swimmer’s time.

As so often happens, records fell rapidly. Trudy had only a month to savor her triumph before another woman — a mother of two, who had waited at Cape Gris-Nez for better weather — also swam the Channel, one hour slower than Trudy (no woman was to beat Trudy’s time until 1950). And three days later, a male German baker, using the crawl Trudy had used, swam the Channel in 12 hours and 40 minutes, almost two hours faster than Trudy had done.

Trudy herself never really profited from her achievement, the victim of an inept and greedy agent and father, both of whom skimmed large chunks off what she was able to earn in swimming exhibitions. Although her hearing grew worse and her health deteriorated, she retained her sunny outlook, never married and lived out her life in relative obscurity.

Given the appeal of Trudy’s story, it’s a shame that Mr. Stout’s editor didn’t correct his many distractingly poor word choices. The author repeatedly refers to Trudy’s fame as “notoriety,” calls ocean liners “boats,” uses “foisted” when he means “focused” (as in “never had so much press attention been foisted on the Channel swimmers”), and throws up puzzlers like this “due to his own reticence wouldn’t allow her to train far offshore.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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