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Gertrude Ederle

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 grueling 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 land, 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''victory gave him an understanding that only four other swimmers in the world possessed. (Should be: Burgess's victory)

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. (Space needed)

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 to 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 Cape GrisNez, France, at about 7 a.m. London bookies had set a 5-1 odds against her. (Space needed)

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 humor. 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, an 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." (Should be: and)

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 colored 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 were 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.

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