This week Hearing International will feature an American woman who overcame an almost insurmountable barrier in becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel. She is Gertrude Caroline Ederle (October 23, 1905 – November 30, 2003).
“Trudy” or “Gertie” to her friends, she was the daughter of a German couple who immigrated to New York City (click here for avideo). Her love of swimming began at an early age when her father, Henry, who ran a butcher shop in Manhattan, taught her to swim at their riverside cottage in Highlands, New Jersey. She would tie a cloth to her waist and her father would tie the other end of the cloth to a rope, which he would pull on to guide her through the water. When they returned to the city for the winter, she swam in the 10th Avenue horse troughs, earning punishment from her father.
On August 1, 1922, when she was only 15, Ederle grabbed world attention when she entered the Joseph P. Day Cup, a 3.5-mile race across New York Bay. As a long-distance swimmer, she was completely unknown. Before that day, her longest race had been 220 yards. Amazingly, she beat 51 other contenders, including U.S. champion Helen Wainwright and British champion Hilda James.
The experience made her realize that she had a talent for long-distance swimming. In the next few years, Ederle broke nine world records in distances from 100 to 500 meters, won six national outdoor swimming titles, and earned more than two dozen trophies. In the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, Ederle won a gold medal for the 400-meter freestyle relay, and won bronze medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle races. In June 1925, she swam 21 miles from the New York Battery to Sandy Hook, beating the men’s record with her time of 7 hours, 11 minutes, and 30 seconds. She always enjoyed breaking men’s records and proving that women could succeed in reaching sports goals that most people thought were impossible.
The influence of “Gentleman Jim”
In the 1920s swimming in general, and endurance swimming in particular, enjoyed a boom in popularity. It became more socially acceptable for women to swim and compete in sports. Certain technical advancements in swimming technique were incorporated into American training and Gertrude Ederle was among the first swimmers to benefit from them. She used a style of crawl swimming that was adapted from one developed by her early coach, the famed trainer and swimming advocate L. deB. Handley.Known to his friends as “Lou” and to his swimmers as “L. deB.“, he worked extensively with the New York Women’s Swimming Association, where he volunteered his services because the new organization was too poor to pay him.
Considered the greatest swimming instructor in the world, Handley, dubbed “Gentleman Jim” by the press, was devoted to advancing the cause of women’s swimming. He was also fascinated with different swimming strokes and their effect on a swimmer’s efficiency and endurance. (Click here for another cool video of Ederle and Handley preparing for the famous Channel swim).
Until the early part of the century, the crawl stroke so common today was unknown. When Handley heard about the Australian crawl stroke, he experimented with it and adapted it. He discovered that women were better at the crawl than men because their bodies were naturally more buoyant and they could kick faster. “Obviously, then,” Handley wrote, “these newer strokes will allow girls and women to utilize more adequately their natural resources and either cover a given course faster, or last longer in an unlimited swim, than earlier styles.” Ederle was fortunate to be guided by this coaching genius. For so long as Handley coached, WSA dominated both U.S. and World women’s swimming. He published five books on swimming and wrote the swimming section for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Despite Handley’s fame, swim “experts” around the world predicted that his protégée Gertrude Ederle would never make it across the Channel using Handley’s crawl technique. But she defied them all on August 6, 1926. She entered the water at Cape Gris-Nez on the French coast wearing a two-piece bathing suit with goggles and a swim cap. Her skin was coated with lanolin to protect her from jellyfish stings and the water’s cold temperature. When she got out of the water in England, she had not only become the first woman to cross the Channel. She had also done it in a time 2 hours faster than any man before her, a record that lasted until Florence Chadwick broke her record in 1953. Ederle immediately became one of the most famous women in America in the Roaring Twenties. She appeared in movies and was the subject of songs.
The Hearing Loss
Ederle’s hearing had been impaired since childhood due to a bout of measles. However, in 1928 she began to experience even more serious hearing problems, which were attributed to her two Channel swims. Doctors had warned her that swimming in cold water would only make things worse. Exhausted by the endless swirl of celebrity, she suffered what some have characterized as a nervous breakdown.
In 1929, Gertrude was engaged to be married. But her fiancé, spooked by her encroaching deafness and jangled nerves, broke things off. Gertrude never married. ”There never was anyone else,” she once explained. “I just didn’t want to get hurt again.” In 1933 she slipped in a stairwell at the home of friends in Long Island and suffered a fractured vertebrae. She was in varying degrees of pain-often excruciating-for the rest of her life. She wore a cast until 1937. Gertrude cut down on her public appearances, but made several guest appearances at Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the New York World’s Fair. By the 1940s, Gertrude had lost almost all her hearing. However she was still a productive citizen. She worked at LaGuardia Airport checking flight instruments. She became somewhat reclusive after that sharing her apartment with two friends in Queens and spending the bulk of her public time in the company of deaf children, whom she taught how to swim at the Lexington School for the Deaf. She enjoyed the rapport they shared. Not until the 1990s, with the advent of high-tech
Gone from the spotlight but not forgotten in the postwar years, Gertrude continued to teach children the fine art of the breaststroke. In 1954, Gertrude was immortalized on a Topps bubble gum card in a series that celebrated great moments in American history (Left). When the International Swimming Hall of Fame was created in 1965 she was among its first group of inductees. Gertrude lived out her finals days at the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, New Jersey where she passed away on November 30, 2003 at the age of 98.