An American Girl Could Do It
“People said women couldn’t swim the Channel, but I proved they could.” - Gertrude Ederle
Gertrude Ederle (1905 – 2003) was born in New York City, but summered with her family in the Highlands, NJ, their home away from home. She was swimming in the Shrewsbury River at nine, later using it to train for her English Channel crossing. Her training paid off early when a group of children spilled into the river from a tipped rowboat, and she didn’t hesitate to jump in and save them.
Gertrude joined the Women's Swimming Association and won her first major competition at sixteen, going on to set both national and world amateur records for women’s freestyle distance races in the early 1920s. She competed in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, winning one gold medal and two bronze for the American team. By 1925, she held 29 records, and soon set her sights on the English Channel. Five men had completed the trek, but she wanted to show the world that “a girl could do it; an American girl could do it.” Residents of the Highlands recalled that during her training she would often encounter brutal weather like fierce rains and blustery winds, but this only steeled her for the riptides and rough waters of the Channel. She developed concentration and determination in the Shrewsbury River.
Ederle attempted the Channel for the first time in 1925. Despite insisting that she could complete the journey, her trainer made the call to pull her out. She returned in 1926 determined to fulfill her dream, and pleaded with her father not to let her be taken her out, “only if I sink a second time.” He agreed, but quietly made it clear to those in the boat that he intended to pull her out the first time. Also kept quiet was the news story on a Norwegian swimmer who failed in his attempt two days earlier…his uninvited surprise swimming companion - a large shark that followed him for several minutes - was not something they wanted to trouble Gertrude with!
“England or Drown!” was splashed across the New York Daily News front page. At Cape Gris-Nez, France, she slathered herself in protective grease, donned her red bathing cap, amber-tinted goggles, and dove into the angry Channel in a controversial two-piece bathing suit designed to reduce drag. The Wall Street betting commission had 3-to-1 odds against her, as the 21-mile distance was often much longer due to the the strong currents that forced swimmers to move in an “S” trajectory – that, and the fact that it was generally thought a woman could not sustain the crossing.
After 14 hours and 31 minutes, Gertrude limped onto the beach in England amidst cheering crowds. It was said she looked like a boxer; the waves had beaten and bruised her face, and the jellyfish stings had created welts. Not only was she the first female to make the crossing, but she smashed the World Record by one hour and 59 minutes. What did she do the next day? She went for a swim, of course! Gertrude returned home to NYC to the largest ticker-tape parade the city had ever seen, and was referred to by President Coolidge as “America’s best girl”. Soon after, she left for the Highlands to cruise around in the little red convertible Roadster that was a gift from her parents. It was a long time before she could go anywhere without mobs of fans congratulating her, and marriage proposals flooded her mailbox for years. Her fame was overshadowed only by Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
Gertrude went on to work with deaf children, as she herself was hearing-impaired from a young age. The Channel crossing exacerbated her condition, which steadily worsened over the years. Gertrude died in Wycoff, New Jersey in 2003 at the age of 98. Her record was finally broken in 1950 by Florence Chadwick…another American girl.