Ederle Swims the English Channel Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gertrude Ederle’s athletic achievement made it clear that women were capable of the vigorous, extended physical activities often associated only with males despite public opinion and media reports that often dismissed women’s athletic potential and were disapproving of females who participated in sports.

Summary of Event

As a child, Gertrude Ederle learned to swim in the Shrewsbury River near her family’s vacation home in New Jersey and in the Atlantic Ocean, experiences that prepared her for distance swimming in open water. When she was thirteen, Ederle joined the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, where she took lessons and used a pool to master her stroke techniques. There she met Charlotte Epstein, who became her mentor and encouraged her to develop her natural talent, build her stamina, and compete in races. [kw]Ederle Swims the English Channel (Aug. 6, 1926) [kw]Swims the English Channel, Ederle (Aug. 6, 1926) [kw]English Channel, Ederle Swims the (Aug. 6, 1926) [kw]Channel, Ederle Swims the English (Aug. 6, 1926) Sports;swimming Women;athletic achievements Swimming, English Channel [g]England;Aug. 6, 1926: Ederle Swims the English Channel[06700] [c]Sports;Aug. 6, 1926: Ederle Swims the English Channel[06700] [c]Women’s issues;Aug. 6, 1926: Ederle Swims the English Channel[06700] Ederle, Gertrude Epstein, Charlotte Wolffe, Jabez Burgess, Thomas William Barrett, Clare Belle Gade Corson, Amelia Vierkoetter, Ernst

Sixteen-year-old Ederle swam the seventeen miles between Manhattan, New York, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in slightly more than seven hours, setting a time record and becoming the first female to achieve that feat. Ederle stunned swimming enthusiasts when she consistently defeated acclaimed international swimmers in races: She earned three medals at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, and her times at swimming competitions set twenty-nine American and international records by 1925.

Although Ederle valued her competitive achievements, her longtime goal was to swim across the English Channel, a goal for long-distance swimmers since the nineteenth century. Prior to Ederle’s first attempt, five male swimmers had survived the twenty-one-mile feat, which usually took place in the Dover Strait between France and England. Initially, the Women’s Swimming Association of New York decided to sponsor Helen Wainright, a fellow Olympian, to swim the Channel. When Wainright became injured, association leaders asked Ederle to attempt the crossing and offered to pay her expenses.

Despite her many athletic achievements, Ederle encountered criticism, particularly from journalists, that women were physically unable to cross the Channel. Eager for the challenge, she ignored negative comments and trained in the ocean, where she conditioned her body to withstand cold temperatures and became accustomed to the tug of waves and tides. Ederle had competition, however: Other American female swimmers, including Clare Belle Barrett and Amelia Gade Corson, also aspired to cross the Channel.

At dawn on August 18, 1925, Ederle began swimming at Cape Gris-Nez, France. She was accompanied by a boat that carried her trainer, Jabez Wolffe, who had attempted swimming across the Channel approximately twenty times, and other helpers. She withstood the chilly, turbulent water for nine hours. Seven miles from the English coast, Ederle was dragged into the boat by an assistant; Wolffe mistakenly thought that Ederle was choking on seawater, and his physical contact eliminated her. Ederle located another trainer, Thomas William Burgess, who in 1911 had become the second man to cross the Channel, and prepared for another attempt. She raised money, secured media sponsorships, and trained near Cape Gris-Nez.

By August 6, 1926, Ederle prepared to swim to England from Cape Gris-Nez. Greased to keep the icy water away from direct contact with her skin, she wore a silk two-piece bathing suit of her own design that would not impede her movement and enabled her to glide through water with minimal resistance. Aware that extreme sea conditions had halted steamboat traffic, Ederle placed goggles over her eyes to protect them from saltwater, covered her hair with a swimming cap, and began swimming toward England just after 7:00 a.m. Her father, her sister Margaret, Burgess, and several swimmers rode beside her in the tugboat Alsace. They guided her through fog, diverted her from threats such as jellyfish, and encouraged her. Journalists traveled nearby in another boat. Ederle’s entourage sang patriotic songs and extended chicken, chocolate, and other sustenance to her on a pole. Burgess urged Ederle to pace herself in smooth water during the morning, but she continued her steady crawl and made quick progress.

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That afternoon, a storm threatened to end Ederle’s attempt. Rain pelted, and wind caused waves to surge and drag her backward. She ignored Burgess’s demands that she stop. During the evening, the storm intensified, and Ederle was temporarily separated from the two boats. When her left leg cramped, she saw the tugboat but vowed to continue swimming despite Burgess’s continued pleas. Determined, she surged forward, and eventually she saw boats signaling with flares and a massing of torches and searchlights on the horizon as she approached the beach at Kingsdown, England.

Ederle neared the shore at approximately 9:40 p.m. Many people went into the sea to celebrate and walk beside her in the darkness: Her swim had lasted fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes. Since the strong currents added distance to her swim, Ederle had probably swum as much as 35 miles (56 kilometers). She set a new record, completing the swim two hours faster than the male record holder. Ederle returned by tugboat to France, enjoyed celebrations in that country, and then visited her grandmother in Germany.

Many newspapers around the world bore headlines cheering Ederle’s accomplishment accompanied by stories stating that she had proved that females are capable athletes. The London Daily News, however, suggested she was an anomaly and emphasized that women are weaker than men. Others dismissed Ederle’s endeavor as a stunt. Ederle traveled on the SS Berengaria to New York, where she rode in a parade attended by a crowd of approximately two million. Both U.S. president Calvin Coolidge and New York City mayor Jimmy Walker lauded Ederle’s achievement.

Later that August, two other swimmers also successfully swam the Channel. Corson completed the swim with quicker times than her male predecessors, but she did not beat Ederle’s record. Frustrated that she was the second woman to achieve the feat, Corson emphasized her special status as the first mother to swim across the English Channel. Two men who swam with Corson quit mid-Channel, but later Ernst Vierkoetter beat Ederle’s record by almost two hours.

Ederle’s celebrity equaled and even surpassed that of many male sports stars. After her swim, polls ranked her as more popular than Babe Ruth, and she considered offers from companies that wanted her to endorse their products. She starred in the 1927 silent film Swim Girl, Swim, had dance steps and a song named for her, and swam for vaudeville performances. She was uncomfortable with publicity, however, and did not encourage fame. She gradually faded into obscurity, especially after such feats as Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic captured media attention.

Significance

Although Ederle insisted that her desire to swim the English Channel was not part of a larger agenda to become a heroine or promote feminist agendas, her accomplishment inspired women worldwide and affected public views on women’s athletic abilities. Her success also represented a victory for promoters of women’s rights. Ederle had endured extreme, dangerous conditions to achieve her goal, and she proved that strength and perseverance were traits that women could display without risking permanent public ostracism for being unfeminine.

Ederle also demonstrated that women were physiologically capable of competing with men in many sports without harming their health. Her accomplishment showed that physical activity was acceptable for women, although many people still criticized women’s swimming attire as too provocative. As a result of Ederle’s success, many women were inspired to participate in athletics for fun and competition, and swimming became a popular recreational sport. Thousands of American women subsequently earned Red Cross certificates for swimming.

Ederle’s mastery of modern strokes—especially the crawl—helped her cross the Channel much more efficiently than her predecessors, who had mostly floated or paddled to cross. Ederle’s success encouraged coaches and officials in several ways: Her swim promoted research into techniques to improve strokes and training as well as consultation of data on time, direction, and strength of tides. It also encouraged the holding of long-distance swims between prominent geographic sites adjacent to large bodies of water. Sports;swimming Women;athletic achievements Swimming, English Channel

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colwin, Cecil M. Breakthrough Swimming. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2002. Internationally renowned swimming coach discusses the pioneering roles in women’s competitive swimming played by Ederle and her coaches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Lissa, ed. Nike Is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998. Includes a chapter on swimming that comments on the public response to distance swimmers and on Ederle’s celebrity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Unwin, Peter. The Narrow Sea: Barrier, Bridge, and Gateway to the World—The History of the Channel. London: Review, 2003. Examines historic events relevant to the English Channel. Discusses swimmers’ attempts to cross the Channel since the 1870’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wennerberg, Conrad A. Wind, Waves, and Sunburn. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1974. History of marathon swimming devotes a chapter to the English Channel that discusses Ederle and other swimmers. Addresses the physiology of swims across the Channel and provides a table of tides.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. 2d ed. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1998. Includes a profile of Ederle. Discusses how female swimmers contributed to improved public perception of women’s roles in athletics.

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