Why the first woman to swim the English Channel deserves our respect
Gertrude Ederle didn’t expect a ticker-tape parade when she returned home to New York. Strangers and admirers surrounded her, giving her congratulations for accomplishing what many thoughts was impossible for a woman to achieve. She was the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel — and bettered the previous record by over two hours. Born with a passion for swimming and a love of being in the water, Gertrude Ederle, or “Gertie” as she was known to her close friends and relatives, often referred to herself as a “water baby.” She loved the water so much that when doctors told her that her already-compromised hearing would worsen if she continued to swim, she decided to continue swimming anyway. And if you think Ederle was only known for being the first woman to cross the English Channel, you’re sorely mistaken. She was also an Olympic gold medalist.
That’s right, our girl Ederle swam at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. She swam a freestyle race that helped win three Olympic medals. After winning her share of gold, Ederele decided to go big or go home and swim across the English Channel in 1925. It’s a 21-mile stretch between France and England (and depending on the tide, it could be longer) that is notoriously choppy, filled with stinging jellyfish, and unbearably cold. Undeterred, Ederle thought of it as the ultimate test of her abilities as a swimmer. However, it didn’t go as planned.
In 1925, at the age of 19, Ederle stepped into the frigid waters. But that wasn’t her big day — in fact, it was quite the opposite. She was disqualified from the race. To break the world record, Ederle had to cross without any kind of physical assistance. As she swam, people aiding her along the course (feeding her, keeping track of her health and journey) thought she was drowning and reached out to help her. Their touch automatically disqualified her. Her New York Times obituary included quotes from earlier reports where Ederle explained that she was only resting and could have easily continued. She was 23 miles into her journey — eight hours in — when they pulled her into the boat. Even her coach Bill Burgess (the second person to swim the English Channel), urged her to quit because he thought she was struggling too much in the water. Even her swimsuit was holding her back.
At the time, women’s swimsuits were made out of wool. Women were also required to wear stockings with shoes. Anything less was considered taboo or illegal (History). Ederle had to make another drastic decision. She wasn’t about to go home and say that she tried. She decided to try again. The following year, Ederle returned to France. This time, she resolved to make her own rules. She ditched her old one-piece swimsuit and stepped out in a “scandalous” two-piece. She even designed her own pair of goggles. To hell with conformity! She had a record to set.
She slathered herself in sheep grease — a trick to ward off painful jellyfish stings and to insulate her from the freezing waters. Ederle once again braved the waters and started her journey. That day, the waters were rough. Ederle saw that the waters were not going to be kind to her. Before she threw herself to the mercy of the sea, with her heart hammering, Ederle gave a silent prayer: “Please, God, help me.” She dived in.
The water was frigid and unwelcoming. Nevertheless, she persisted…one stroke at a time. It was reported that she hummed between strokes to keep her motivated. She was fed chicken legs and vegetables by her supporters. The waters was relentless — but so was Ederle. After 35 miles, 14 hours and 31 minutes, Ederle reached English shores. The record prior to her historic swim was 16 hours and 33 minutes (Dover); Ederle had it beat by over two hours. Coming out of the water, Ederle looked like the ocean had given her it’s best beating, but she came out triumphant. Upon her return to the United States, she was already a celebrity. A parade was held for her. Overwhelmed, but overjoyed, Ederle felt like she accomplished the impossible. She was called the “Queen of the Waves,” and praised by not only the mayor of New York, but by President Calvin Coolidge who dubbed her, “America’s Best Girl.”