Happy Birthday Gertrude Ederle!
On October 23, 1905 Gertrude Ederle entered the world. Her parents, Henry and Anna, were German immigrants that owned a butcher shop in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her family owned a small cottage in New Jersey, where the Ederle family spent most summers. Gertrude would spend her summers swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, and when back in the city would find any public pool available. It is said that she was once caught swimming in horse troughs!
Ederle had measles as a child that caused slight hearing loss. Doctors warned that she should stay out of water because of the potential worsening of her hearing but after attending a swimming exhibition at Jersey Shore club Ederle was hooked. Ederle’s older sister Meg was one of her biggest supporters. Meg would fill out and send in entry forms even after Ederle began swimming competitively. Having the support of family can be so crucial when following one’s dreams.
Ederle would need that continued support when she left school as a teenager to continue swimming competitively and join the Women’s Swimming Association. It was not long before Ederle was setting new national time records in events. Ederle was coached by Louis de Breda Handley of Australia. Ederle was,
“one of Handley’s first protégés. So proficient was she with his six-beat crawl that he encouraged her to perfect an eight-beat version, where she kicked her legs four times each time she brought an arm forward. There are swimmers today who cannot make the jump from six to eight.”
When she was just 16 she competed in the 1922 Joseph P. Day Cup and out-swam all of the other competitors in the 3.5 mile swim. Two years later, in 1924, Ederle swam at the Olympic games in Paris. Led by coach Charlotte Epstein, the founder of the Women’s Swimming Association, Ederle’s relay team took home the gold, and Ederle herself won two bronze medals for freestyle races.
In 1925, Ederle started training to swim the full 21 miles across the English Channel.Five male swimmers and crossed the channel but Ederle was determined to be the first woman. On her first attempt she was disqualified for a silly technicality. But on August 6th, 1926, her second attempt she found success,
“She started at Cape Gris-Nez on the French coast, wearing a two-piece bathing suit with goggles and a swim cap. She coated her body with lanolin as protection from jellyfish stings and the water’s cold temperature. Once Ederle entered the water, her progress through rough waves and powerful currents was supervised by a tugboat that sailed nearby, carrying her trainer T.W. Burgess and her family members. She arrived on shore at Kingsdown, England, after 14 hours and 31 minutes, beating the record set by the previous male channel swimmers.”
Ederle became a celebrity. She was America’s “Queen of the waves”, receiving praise from President Calvin Coolidge and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. She began touring and giving swimming demonstrations across the nation. Ederle injured her back in 1933, rendering her unable to compete. But she continued to be a part of the swimming world for the remainder of her life. Ederle was a swimming instructor at the Lexington School for the Deaf. She would eventually go deaf later in life, after struggling with her hearing all through life. At the age of 98, Ederle passed in 2003. You can still visit the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ederle fought hard to prove herself in a male-dominated athletic world, something many women are still trying to do. She is an inspiration for us all!
Happy Birthday Gertrude Ederle!