August 6

Gertrude Ederle; photo credit Bain News Service/Library of Congress via wikipedia

On this day on 1926, 20-year-old swim prodigy Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel, clocking in at 14 hours and 34 minutes. Only five men had performed the feat prior to Ederle, and she bested the fastest among them by two hours. Prior to her salient achievement, Eberle had set over two dozen world records in swimming, won gold in the 1924 Paris Olympics (the 4 x 100m freestyle relay), and became the first woman to swim the 22 miles across New York Bay.

The trek across the English Channel was a mile shorter than New York Bay, but the waters, famously, are far less agreeable — and much colder! Ederle had already attempted the swim once in 1925, but her trainer at the time, Jabez Wolffe, forced her to quit during the eighth hour, fearing she had ingested too much saltwater. (Perhaps she was also envious; Wolffe had herself tried and failed the Channel swim 22 times.) Furious, Ederle fired her coach.

For her second attempt, Ederle would secure the services of someone who had actually completed the swim, Thomas William Burgess. Joining him aboard the tugboat that would shadow Ederle was her family and a reporter with the New York Post, one of two newspapers “sponsoring” the swim; in exchange for financial considerations, the Post and the Chicago Tribune were granted exclusive access to Ederle during her escapade. As reporters from other papers were not allowed on the boat, they hired out one of their own and tagged along behind. Apparently looking to sabotage the story they had been scooped out of, their boat came dangerously close to Ederle multiple times.

Any desires they had to see Ederle fail were nearly gratified on a few occasions; high winds and storms made for some very rough swimming in stretches. Some time around the twelfth hour, Burgess urged her to end the attempt. “Gertie, you must come out!” he reportedly cried. “What for?” she replied as she bobbed around in the swelling waves. Her family agreed that she should continue, her father reminding her that a promised gift of a new roadster would only be awarded if she finished. (Typical sports dad.) Pressing on, she reached the shore of Kingsdown, Kent at 9:04 P.M, and was greeted by a British customs agent who asked for her passport.

Ederle is crowned “Queen of the Waves;” photo credit Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images via britannica.com

Ederle returned home to a hero’s welcome; throngs of New Yorkers flocked to see her during a ticker tape parade held in her honor. She met President Calvin Coolidge, who called her “America’s Best Girl.” As popular as Babe Ruth for a time, Ederle somewhat successfully capitalized on her fame by touring with vaudeville shows across the country.

A mere seven years later, Ederle suffered a severe back injury and never swam again. A childhood bout with the measles also left her with progressive hearing loss (exacerbated, no doubt, by her time in the water), and she was almost totally deaf by the age of 35. Never married, she lived out the remainder of her life mostly out of the public eye, and devoted herself to teaching deaf children how to swim. Ederle died in 2003 at the age of 98.

Sources: Wikipedia entry for Gertrude Ederle; articles at biography.com and history.com