Gertrude Ederle completes the first successful crossing from England to France.
A choppy, calculated Channel adventure in "The Great Swim"
By Ginny Merdes Special to The Seattle Times
"THE GREAT SWIM"
Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to complete an English Channel swim, greased her body to stay warm.
"The Great Swim" by Gavin Mortimer. Walker & Co., 336 pp., $24.95
Twenty-one miles of cold choppy water. The channel separating England and France has historically challenged the elite distance swimmer. Until 1926, no female swimmer had successfully crossed the English Channel, though some made brave attempts, including 18-year-old Gertrude Ederle, who made her first try in 1925.
The following year, Ederle, three other American women, British citizen Mercedes Gleitze and others set their sights on being the first woman to cross the English Channel.
In "The Great Swim," Gavin Mortimer re-creates the race and the times. What he does best is show how a handful of U.S. newspapers and their journalists created a public frenzy surrounding the event. The American press proved that photos of women in swimsuits did sell newspapers.
Using archival press reports and interviews, Mortimer recalls the America of the 1920s and the place of American women of that era. Flappers who bobbed their hair and shortened their skirts were looked down on. Women were considered the weaker sex. Still, the lure of competition and the lust for the distinction of an American achieving a "first" captivated readers.
Mortimer provides background for each U.S. competitor. A New Yorker whose father owned a butcher shop, Ederle brought to the channel her experience as a serious swimmer and the bravado of youth: "I want to be the first woman to swim from France to England." She was hired to write an exclusive column during her training for the Chicago Tribune-Daily News syndicate.
Clarabelle Barrett, another New Yorker, was interested in money, not fame. She needed to pay for singing lessons to achieve her dream of becoming a professional singer. Barrett was part of a national movement to get American female swimmers into the Olympic Games.
Lillian Cannon, of Baltimore, used an 11-hour swim in Chesapeake Bay to train for the channel crossing. She wrote a chatty column for the Baltimore Sun, helping newspapers fuel a rivalry between her and Ederle.
Mille Gade grew up in Denmark, moved to New York and quickly became head swimming instructor at the Harlem YMCA. In the channel frenzy, Gade promoted herself as the swimming mother of two.
All the channel swimmers had separate trainers, support staff and calculators of the best tide and weather conditions. Each picked a time to attempt a crossing based on advice from trainers. Cannon was the first American to attempt the crossing that summer of 1926. She failed, but turned out to cheer on Ederle when she made her attempt days later.
The book's cover photograph of Ederle wearing a swim cap and a smile announces the winner to all readers. And although Mortimer's overuse of partial quotes and clips makes his story choppy, in his re-creation of Ederle's crossing you can't help but feel cold, wet and exhausted. Ederle overcame bad weather and an unexpected tide change to win, prompting her trainer William Burgess to exclaim, "No man or woman ever made such a swim. It is past human understanding." In fact, Ederle's time — 14 hours and 39 minutes — beat the male record by a full two hours. Her triumph was as an athlete, no asterisk for gender.
Mortimer quotes writer Heywood Broun on Ederle's crossing: "When Gertrude Ederle struck out from France she left behind her a world which has believed for a great many centuries that woman is the weaker vessel ... And when her toes touched the sands of England, she stepped out of the water and into a brand-new world."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Excerpts From Histories Written About Gertrude Ederly:
Swimmer Gertrude Ederle/Determination Helped Her Make A Record-Breaking English Channel Swim -- By Susan Vanghn, Investor's Business Daily, May 24, 2000
Gertrude Ederle sobbed bitterly as her swimming coach, Jabez Wolffe, pulled her out of the freezing waters of the English Channel on August 18, 1925.
Had the 19-year-old Ederle, a New York resident, been able to make just seven more miles, she'd have become the first woman to have completed the gruelling 21-mile swim from France to England.
But Wolffe, who had tried more than 20 times to conquer the Channel himself, believed Ederle was too nauseated to continue. His grabbing her disqualified her instantly. Ederle 's long-held dream was lost. The sponsorship money raised by the New York Women's Swimming Association had been spent in vain. And the callous international press, which had boisterously asserted that no female could swim the Channel, gloated saucily.
Hundreds had attempted the arduous Channel swim before Ederle. Only five men had made it all the way. What Mount Everest was to climbers, the English Channel was to long-distance swimmers. Its cold waters were subject to powerful currents, wind and fog. It brimmed with jellyfish and Portuguese men-of-war and occasionally was visited by sharks.
If this weren't enough, the Channel was the world's busiest shipping lane, so swimmers had to watch out for giant freighters that might suddenly overtake them.
After Ederle's aborted Channel swim, she returned to America shaken but not defeated. She spent the next few months plotting a new attempt. How could she raise enough money when sponsors would be reluctant to support a second attempt? Most important, what, if anything, could she do differently to turn her failure into success?
1. Ederle hired Thomas Burgess as her new swimming coach. He was one of the five men who'd made it across the Channel, although it took him 14 tries. She realized that Burgess's victory gave him an understanding that only four other swimmers in the world possessed.
2. Yet even with Burgess' expert guidance, Ederle knew she'd have to build mental toughness for her rematch against the sea. She needed to eliminate defeating memories of her last swim and muster as much encouragement as she could from family, friends and supporters. The young swimmer also planned a bold departure from tradition -- one that startled and amused sports writers. Although all five men who'd successfully swum the channel employed the breaststroke, Ederle had decided to try a new stroke called the crawl. Lastly, there was the question of money. The Chicago Tribune syndicate offered to finance Ederle's second attempt in return for an exclusive story. But if Ederle (who'd won three medals in the 1924 Olympics) accepted the paper's offer, she'd lose her amateur status and not be able to compete in the Olympics -- or any other amateur competition -- again.
3. Ederle decided to go for it. On August 6, 1926, she put on an outfit designed for her by her most faithful supporter -- her older sister, Margaret -- consisting of a red bathing cap, two-piece bathing suit and goggles. Slathering herself with lanolin, petrolatum, olive oil and lard to protect against jellyfish and cold, Ederle encountered the 61-degree water at Cap GrisNez, France, at about 7 a.m. London bookies had set a 5-1 odds against her. On the tug Alsace were Ederle's father and sister, her new coach and a gaggle of supporters. Photographers and journalist followed on a second boat.
To keep her spirits up and stay focused on her goal -- which could take hours to achieve -- Ederle used humour. When she found herself anxious or stroking too fast, she sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and set her strokes to the song's waltzing beat. When the weather turned fierce and 20-foot swells began to batter her, she combated her fears by listening to reporters' off-key renditions of "Yes We Have No Bananas" and "East Side, West Side."
4. Hours into the swim, Ederle's left leg grew numb, and she had trouble kicking. The sea swells and currents had become so powerful that, for every yard she progressed, she was pushed back two. Both her father and coach leaned over the boat and pleaded with her: "You must come out." But this time, Ederle remained in control. "No, no," she shouted back." "What for?" And she kept swimming. She decided she would finish the swim or drown. At 9:40 p.m., after more than 14 hours, Ederle reached the shores of Kingsdown, England, where hundreds of people holding flares had gathered to cheer her. Ederle had beaten the men's record by more than two hours. Her record would stand for 24 years.
Later, experts estimated that, because of the rough waters, Ederle had swum 35 miles to cross the Channel's 21-mile width, notes David Adler in "America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle."
Her victory had momentous repercussions. Citing her as their inspiration, more than 60,000 women earned American Red Cross swimming certificates during the 1920s.
Ederle developed her "don't quit" philosophy as a child after a near-fatal drowning accident. While visiting her grandmother in Germany, 8-year-old Ederle tumbled into a pond and had to be rescued. The mishap frightened her terribly, but also motivated her to learn to swim. Her father tethered Ederle to a rope, and shouted encouragement as she awkwardly attempted to dog paddle in a river near the family's New Jersey summer cottage.
With her father's encouragement, Ederle soon mastered swimming. She practiced diligently, and in a few months could outswim her peers. Once, after she'd joined the Women's Swimming Association in New York, a competing swimmer mocked the way Ederle was practicing a new stroke. Ederle refused to change her technique or feel the criticism's sting. She just practiced harder -- and used the new stroke to beat the girl.
Her strategy helped her set 29 U.S. and world swimming records.
"When somebody tells me I cannot do something, that's when I do it," the 93-year-old Ederle recently told a New Jersey newspaper reporter at her nursing home in Wyckoff, N.J. where swimming certificates and old photos line the walls of her room.
"Oh, it was a good life," Ederle said. "I was very happy when I was swimming. I could have gone on and on."
A Mighty Big Splash
By Denise Grady/The New York Times Book Review
In August 1926, fighting rain, high winds and 20-foot waves, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, Ederle, just 19, already held three Olympic medals and had set 29 American and world records. Her time for the channel, 14 hours 31 minutes, beat the men's record by nearly two hours and remained the women's record for 35 years.
David A. Adler's America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle(Gulliver Books/Harcourt, $16; ages 5 to 9), illustrated with richly coloured acrylic paintings by Terry Widener, captures the highlights of Ederle's life in evocative images and telling details that will appeal to children. Widener's stylized, muscular figures, reminiscent of the American Scene art of Ederle's era, gain charm with each reading even though he paints Ederle with thunder thighs and dainty shoulders that are surely the reverse of a swimmer's proportions.
In a method not described in any Red Cross manual, Ederle's father taught her to swim when she was 7 or 8 by tossing her into a river with a rope about her waist and ordering her to paddle. Within a few years she was winning medals. At the finish of her storm-tossed channel swim, thousands of people gathered on the coast in Kingsdown, England, to guide her ashore with flares and bonfires.
What power Ederle had; what a joy it must have been to see her in the water.
This book, though engaging, does not quite bring her to life. The prose falls flat, or veers off into the language of a juvenile feminist tract. Ederle's own voice is missing. Adler looks at her from a distance, as if she was a historic figure, even though she is still alive, and in January, at 93, was well enough to be interviewed by a reporter.
Older children will appreciate the details included in the author's notes at the end of the book: Ederle might have crossed the channel four hours faster had the weather been clear, and she lost much of her hearing after her swim.
Her determination served her well seven years later when she fell, injuring her spine, and was not expected to walk again. She recovered after spending more than four years in a cast, and went on to become a dress designer and a swimming teacher for deaf children.
Excerpts from: History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming
A swim that hasn’t been seen in nearly a century had an interesting beginning around 1910. The swim is from the Battery to Sandy Hook, NJ, a distance of 22 miles. Charles Durborow from Philadelphia had made 3 attempts, trying both directions and even coming as close as ½ mile from finishing once. Life Saving Commodore Alfred Brown began experimenting with the swim in 1913. His first attempt on August 4th wound up in failure when pollution consisting of tar, oil, other rubbish and driftwood from Bayonne prevented him from continuing the swim. This is the first known time that pollution was sited as a reason to cancel a swim. He eventually was successful, completing the swim on August 28, 1913 in a time of 13:38. He was accompanied in a launch by Paul Frommlach, Charles Kaufman, James Kennedy, and John Reuschett. This was his fourth attempt in less than a month. His persistence paid off with his becoming the first to successfully complete the course.
His dance on top of the marathon-swimming world, which the press bestowed upon him, was short lived. Two weeks later, Samuel Richards from Boston came to New York with a seven-man support crew from the L Street Swimming Club. They took a rowboat and scouted the swim out plotting their attack. On September 14, 1913, he dove off Battery pier at 6:40 AM and finished in 8:12, taking more than 5 hours off Alfred Brown’s time. This was considered a spectacular swim but what had confounded all the previous swimmers, the tides and opposing currents were second nature to Richards who did his training in Boston among the Harbor Islands. Charles Durborow felt insulted by the success of his contemporaries and issued a challenge to race Richards but his one condition was that it couldn’t be in Boston Harbor. So many challenges arose over this course that the next phase of the swim was a natural.
The American Life Saving Society proposed a marathon-swimming contest from the Battery to Sandy Hook, which wound up being sponsored annually by a New York newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune. One reason the paper sponsored the race was because the publisher was Odgen Reid, a NYAC member who while at Yale University was captain of their swimming and water polo teams. The first race was held July 19, 1914 from the Battery, NY, to Sandy Hook, NJ, a distance of twenty-two miles. The race was promoted by the newspaper and claimed it to be the greatest contest of its kind ever held in the country. The race was won by George R. Meehan, age 23, of Boston in a time of 7:18. He was followed by two other finishers: Samuel Richards in 8:19 and Walter Dunn in 8:39 both, also, from Boston. The only other finisher of 31 starters was Charles Durborow of Philadelphia in last place; this swim settled the issue of who was the better distance swimmer. George F. Esselborn of New York led in the early stages of the race until the Narrows when Meehan challenged for the lead. Meehan was using the sidestroke when he overtook Esselborn who was using the trudgeon stoke. The start was from Pier A of the Battery at 4:55am into a weak flood tide that didn’t end until 9am. In the same swim season, Nell Kenney, age 27, of Sydney, Australia, successfully swam the distance in 9:35 on September 21, 1914. She swam solo but had witnesses to authenticate the swim as she had arrived in the United States too late to participate in the first swimming race over this course. In 1916, a young man named Robert Dowling placed 6th in that year’s marathon swim. This young man had already made his mark on the marathon-swimming world the previous year.
On June 14th, 1925, Gertrude Ederle set a world record for the 150-yard freestyle in the Olympic Pool in Long Beach, Long Island. In a time of 1 minute 42.6 seconds, she took a full second off the record, which she had set in February. The next day, in a tune up for her English Channel attempt, she set the course record for the Battery to Sandy Hook swim of 7:11 on June 15, 1925. The next day she left for England for her 1st English Channel attempt. She started the swim at 4:42 am at the Battery. The course took her down Buttermilk Channel on the east side of Governors Island. The current wasn’t finished flooding at this point and she had a slug of it. She would occasionally switch over from the eight-beat crawl to using the sidestroke or breaststroke to talk with the crew during the swim. Conrad Hahn of Jersey City and Walter Wendt of Hoboken were the oarsmen on a rowboat accompanying her. She took no food or drinks during the swim and was slightly bothered by the salt water in her eyes.
As of the close of the 2005 marathon season, Gertrude Ederle still holds the course record for the Battery to Sandy Hook swim. This is akin to finding out Babe Ruth still holds a record in baseball. What is this swim like? You leave the Battery at the beginning of an ebb current, striking out for a safe passage down through Lower New York Harbor. You pass just off shore of Governor’s Island. Then you pass among the ships at anchor just off the main channel by Brooklyn. By this time the current has picked up speed and you are going so fast it looks like you are going to crash into Staten Island. At some point, you’ve crossed over the main channel and are now cruising past Staten Island. You go under the Verrazano Bridge high above your head and before you is the Atlantic Ocean getting wider every minute. You stay in the current and pull away from New York, on your right you see the Highlands and below them is the Hook. About this time, as you’ve drawn near to Sandy Hook, the tide turns and you’ve a two mile slug to shore. It’s carrying you into Raritan Bay and you swim with everything left. You can’t take a break here as the current will sweep you pass the Hook. The hours have ticked by and now the precious minutes wind down to the 7th hour and the 11th minute that a seventeen-year old girl in 1925, holder of 29 national and world records, took to complete this swim. It’s been 80 years since anyone has swum this course. Except for Gertrude Ederle, interest in the swim waned when the New York Tribune stop publishing in 1924.