This topic came to me in a weird way. About a year and a half ago I was out buying yarn with my friend. I found one I really liked, this gorgeous deep green, deep purple, and maroon variegated one. It was being discontinued so I snapped it up. The tag on it about the yarn and the company and everything, had the name of the colorway: Gertrude Ederle. The tag also gave a brief bio of the person. (Turns out the yarn line did all their colorways based on famous, important women. I wish they hadn’t gone out of business, it’s so cool!) So Gertrude Ederle has been in my head for about that long. Well, last week I saw a list of famous women you should know, or some such thing, and she was on there too, so I decided she was going to be my next topic.
Gertrude Ederle was born October 23, 1905 in New York City. Her parents were Henry and Anna Ederle, “German immigrants who owned a butcher shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side” (1). Ederle was the third of Henry and Anna’s six children (four girls, two boys). Ederle worked in her parent’s butcher shop after school and during the summertime.
Her parents also had a small summer cottage in New Jersey, where her father taught Ederle to swim. Ederle had had measles when she was young, and her hearing had been damaged. “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 recalled (2). Ederle said she was a water baby and was “happiest in the waves” (3). She spent most of her time in the ocean, even though her doctors had given her that warning. While she didn’t care, her father did, disapproving of Ederle’s swimming.
Back in New York, Ederle would swim in the “10th Avenue horse troughs, earning punishment from her father” (4). When she was twelve, Ederle joined the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA). For $3 a year, Ederle had access to the WSA’s facilities and trainers. At this time, swimming was really taking off as a sport, and the WSA was the center of competitive swimming, training others such as Esther Williams. The new bathing suits that had been developed since the turn of the century really helped increase a swimmer’s speed through the water.
Additionally, the WSA’s director, Charlotte “Eppy” Epstein, was able to convince the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) “to endorse women’s swimming as a sport in 1917 and in 1919 pressured the AAU to ‘allow swimmers to remove their stockings for competition as long as they quickly put on a robe once they got out of the water’” (5). Also, former Olympian Louis Handley worked at the WSA, developing new swimming styles. Handley developed the American crawl, based on the Australian crawl, at the WSA; Ederle would later adapt Handley’s American crawl further. These factors made the WSA the place to be for up and coming swimmers in the early 1900s, and turned swimming into an acceptable sport for women to practice and even compete in.
The year Ederle joined the WSA, at age twelve, she set her first world record in the 880 yard freestyle. This made Ederle the youngest world record holder in swimming. She would set eight more world records, setting seven alone in one afternoon at Brighton Beach in 1922; she would also hold 29 combined US national and world records between 1921 and 1925. At age sixteen (1921/22), Ederle won her first championship as the Metropolitan New York junior 100-meter freestyle champion (6).
On August 1, 1922, Ederle won the Joseph P. Day Cup. This was a three and a half mile race across New York Bay. Before this Ederle had only ever done short races, but she beat 51 other competitors “including Helen Wainwright and British Champion Hilda James” (Wainwright will come up again later) (7). Over the next few years Ederle broke nine world records in races from one- to five-hundred meters, and “won six national outdoor swimming titles, and earned more than two dozen trophies” (8). Ederle always said she enjoyed “beating men’s records, proving that women could succeed in reaching sports goals that most people thought were impossible” (9).
In 1924, Ederle was part of the United States Olympic team for swimming, for that year’s Paris Olympics. During the Olympics Ederle had an injured knee. Additionally, the US did not want its athletes corrupted by Paris’s low morals, so just to get to the venues to practice and compete, the swimmers had to travel five to six hours. Despite all this, the US won 99 medals in Paris. Ederle won three: gold as a member of the 4x100m freestyle (setting a new world record of 4:58.8 for the event), and bronze in the individual 100m and 400m freestyles. Ederle had been favored for golds in all her events and “would later say her failure to win three golds was the biggest disappointment of her career’” (10).
In 1925, Ederle swam from Battery Park, NY, to Sandy Hook, NJ. The twenty-two mile trip took her only seven hours and eleven minutes. This record stood for eighty-one years. Ederle’s nephew believed this was her warm up for what she would do next.
In 1925, the WSA sponsored Helen Wainwright (who Ederle had beat in that 1922 race), one of the other members of the gold-medal winning 4×100 team, and Ederle to swim across the English Channel. Only five men had ever swum the Channel (two Americans, two English, and one Argentinian), the first, Englishman Matthew Webb, having done so in 1875, and the best being done in sixteen hours, thirty-three minutes by Enrique Tiraboschi. Wainwright and Ederle would be the first women if they were successful.
Unfortunately, Wainwright had to drop out pretty quickly due to an injury. Ederle decided she would still do it though. Ederle trained with Jabez Wolffe, who had tried to swim the Channel twenty-two times. Pretty much from the beginning things seemed strained between them. Wolffe almost immediately tried to get Ederle to slow down, believing she wouldn’t be able to keep it up at the speed she was going.
Despite this, Ederle made her attempt on August 18, 1925. This attempt was not successful though. Ederle was disqualified when Wolffe thought she was drowning and had someone attempt to rescue her. As soon as the other person touched Ederle, she was disqualified. Ederle said she was not drowning, but was just resting, floating face-down in the water. Other stories have it that Wolffe thought she had swallowed too much ocean water, or that he thought the current was too rough, or that he thought she was seasick. Whatever exactly happened, this first time Ederle was disqualified, and Wolffe was fired as her trainer.
Ederle was not going to quit though, and hired a new trainer, Thomas William Burgess. Burgess had swum the Channel in 1911, one of those five successful men, after having tried thirty-two previous times; less than seven percent of attempts to swim the Channel are successful.
I’m going to stop there for now. Ederle’s had her first attempt at swimming the Channel and was not successful. She’s going to try again. Will she do it? Next time, we’ll find out (though I’m sure you can guess the answer).
1 – “Gertrude Ederle,” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015.
2, 3 – Richard Severo, “Gertrude Ederle, the First Woman to Swim Across the English Channel, Dies at 98,” The New York Times, December 1, 2003.
4, 7, 8, 9 – Gertrude Ederle Facts, YourDictionary.
5, 10 – Gertrude Ederle
6 – Ann T. Keene, “Gertrude Ederle,” American National Biography Online.