Grit May Be Great but Teamwork Is Better

On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. A ticker tape parade down Lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes followed — with more than two million New Yorkers (a third of New York City’s population) lining the streets. It was an incredible feat for a 20-year-old. Trudy, as she was called back then, may not have finished high school, but she was a world-class swimmer with single-minded determination. She had grit. But she also had something else.

The preceding year, in the summer of 1925, Ederle made her first stab at swimming the English Channel. Newspaper headlines from across the world screamed “Ederle Collapses” after she was pulled from the waters on August 18 by her coach, Jabez Wolffe, a Channel swimmer himself who attempted to complete the swim 21 times. She had been dubbed “the most popular personage of our time” prior to her first try at the Channel, but a fickle public soon lost interest in the swimming wunderkind and turned to other sports heroes.

Thanks to the radio (the first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, had its first broadcast on November 2, 1920), competitive sport had captured the imagination of Americans. A large percentage of a newspaper’s ink was devoted to dashing figures like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Red Grange, even Johnny Weissmuller (he was a three-gold Olympian) as organized sports picked up steam. Women, after getting the vote on June 14, 1919, were finally ditching the corsets and asking for a piece of the action by competing in tennis, basketball and especially swimming.

Along comes Ederle, who was breaking swimming records at the age of 15. By the time she retired from amateur swimming, Ederle had 29 world records. But it was Ederle’s sister, Meg, who pushed her to into the competitive arena. Elliott Denman, a writer for the New York Times, interviewed Ederle two years before she died in 2003 and the swimmer said, “‘Meg, she’s the one who actually made me become a swimmer … I never cared for it, really. I was lazy. I liked to fool around in the water, but I didn’t like being serious about it. Meg’s the one who wanted to make me a champion. I used to get these entry blanks in the mail and tear them up. Meg fished them out and mailed them in.’’

When Ederle’s father, a German immigrant butcher, signed his daughters up for swim lessons at the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA), Gertrude met two more influential people: Charlotte Epstein and Louis de B. Handley.

Epstein was a stenographer when she formed the WSA in 1917. Originally she was just looking for a place to swim, but she was also an advocate for the health benefits of swimming — and women’s rights. She rented one of New York’s only chlorinated pools (in the basement of Brooklyn’s Hotel Terrain) and recruited Louis de B. Handley as a coach.

Epstein was determined that the same opportunities availed the boys were open to the girls. She soon petitioned the AAU to allow women to compete in the 1920 Olympics (and subsequently became an Olympic coach and judge). Female swimmers were the first American women to achieve full Olympic status.

Eppy, as she was called, also endorsed Australian Swimmer Annette Kellerman’s sleek one-piece racing suit — scoffing at the heavy swimming skirts popular in her day). She encouraged her swimmers to adopt a leaner and meaner style. Even when WSA swimmers Ethelda Bleibtrey and Charlotte Boyle, both national champion swimmers, were actually arrested at Manhattan Beach for “Nude Swimming” because they removed their stockings before going into the water for a swim workout, Eppy didn’t back down.

Yes, they actually measured the hemline on women’s swimsuits in 1925.

Epstein was a keen administrator with a flair for marketing and she knew how to challenge the powers that be on their antiquated theories regarding women and competition. Epstein’s opinions had heft. It didn’t hurt that the WSA-sponsored female swimmers held 51 world records, 202 individual AAU Women’s National Senior Champions in swimming and diving and 30 National Championship relay teams and Olympic medals in swimming and diving.

Louis Handley, a former Olympian and dapper New York merchant, volunteered his time at the WSA and refined the early Australian crawl-stroke, introducing the American crawl. Keen marketers that they were, Epstein and Handley devised a plan to train swimmers to tackle the English Channel on the 50th Anniversary of Matthew Webb’s crossing, the first man to successfully swim the Channel.

Epstein had her trained eyes on another swimmer, Helen Wainwright, to conquer the Channel, but Eppy ended up bringing Ederle to Cape Gris-Nez that summer because Wainwright had fallen while getting on a trolley car and injured a thigh muscle. Meg urged her sister to step up. Epstein pledged to raise the money ($9,000) needed for Ederle’s attempt.

Ederle’s WSA team chose Jabez Wolffe to train the young swimmer while she was in France for the Channel swim. But as soon as Ederle entered the freezing, rough Channel waters for her workouts that summer, Wolffe began to scold her for swimming too fast. Using Handley’s eight beat American crawl stroke, and convinced she could maintain the pace (she had already tested herself in a 21-mile Battery Park swim to Sandy Hook, New Jersey), Ederle ignored her trainer. Friction mounted. On August 18, the day of her first attempt, Wolffe directed the crew to pull the swimmer from the waters when she was about six miles from the English coast because she had swallowed some water after being hit by a big wave. Ederle was furious. She wasn’t ready to give up. She fired Wolffe, accusing him a few months later of spiking her beef broth that she consumed to keep her strength up while swimming the Channel.

She made the decision to try another Channel swim the following summer. This time Ederle was convinced she would have a different outcome. For the 1926 Channel swim, she would make sure her sister Meg accompanied her (Meg didn’t travel with her for the first attempt) and she would hire Tom Burgess (the second man to successfully swim the Channel … after 16 attempts) as her trainer.

Ederle was highly motivated. The Daily News and Chicago Tribune agreed to sponsor the 1926 swim and promised her a sporty red roadster if she won. She also felt obliged to win back her father’s $5,000 wager, which he lost when he bet on her to complete the first Channel swim.

At 7:08 a.m. on August 6, 1926, with her father and sister on board to watch and cheer her on (along with 50 other reporters and photographers), Ederle entered the waters from the Cape Gris-Nez beach and began to swim — an eight beat crawl stroke that Handley had taught her at the WSA.

When the weather changed and the tides raged, her trainer considered pulling her out, but Ederle’s sister insisted that Trudy had to make that decision and no one else. When Burgess asked Trudy if she wanted to be pulled from the frigid, rough waters at 7:11 p.m., Trudy responded, “What for?” The crew on the Alsace laughed, but no one dared to pull her out of the water this time. Ederle completed the swim in 14 hours and 39 minutes — one hour and 54 minutes better than the men’s record, despite the fact that the strong tides threw her off course and she ended up swimming 35 miles across rather than the more direct 21-mile route. Without a doubt, it took tremendous grit for Ederle to complete the swim.

This was Ederle’s second ticker-tape parade; the first one she participated in was given to celebrate the American swim team’s gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

A lot has been written about grit lately — in fact, it’s now considered the most important predictor of success in life. (To delve deeper into grit, listen to Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk on the subject.) But I believe there’s something even more important to success. If you want to excel and flourish in your personal and professional life, it’s really important to surround yourself with a supportive team. If you’re not lucky enough to be born into a family of eternal optimists (Henry Ederle actually waged $25,000 for his daughter’s second try at the Channel), then find new people who believe in you.

Pick a significant other who thinks you’re a gift from God; find a mentor who wants to share the wisdom; choose friends who prompt you to take risks and reach for the sky because that’s what they do; sign up for a team sport that allows you to discover what your role is in every victory and defeat. Trudy loved being part of a team — whether it was the team on the home front or at the WSA or the 1924 Olympic swimmers — and she always gave credit to others for her success. You may have a ton of talent, intelligence, grit, Ivy League credentials and determination, but if you think you succeed by yourself, you’re mistaken. We need others to get us through the good times and the bad.

Find a team that gets you. Your odds of successfully swimming your own Channel — whether it’s in business or the arts or in service to humanity — will improve exponentially.