When Gertrude Ederle made her swim in 1926, it had social and historical impact.
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 5, 1999
As she sliced through the water, Gertrude Ederle pulled along in her wake the hopes and dreams of much of American womanhood.
And when she struggled out of the surf near the white cliffs of Dover, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, she brought with her a record that would become the women's standard for 35 years.
She was an athlete of note even before conquering what was called the Mount Everest of swimming. From 1921-25 she set 29 national and world amateur records -- seven of them in one day in 1922 -- from 50 yards to the half-mile. And at the 1924 Paris Olympics she was a member of the U.S. team that won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay.
Still, Ederle was only 19 when, at 7:09 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1926, she stepped into the channel at Cape Griz Nez, France, her body coated with layers of lanoline, lard and heavy grease to insulate her from the frigid water.
Conditions were so rough that steamship crossings were canceled. But Ederle was not to be deterred. She had tried to swim the 35-mile-wide channel the previous summer and was within 61/2 miles of her goal when exhaustion overtook her. This time she nearly called off the attempt when it was barely underway.
"I nearly quit seven minutes after starting because of a rough swell," she said the next day. "But I thought I had to make a showing, so I just kept on and on and on. When I got a few miles out I was confident I could make it and kept on," despite being tossed about by waves and plagued by seasickness.
She reached Dover at 9:40 p.m. and spent the next hour doubled over with cramps.
Ederle had completed the crossing in 14 hours, 39 minutes, demolishing the record of 21:45 set 51 years earlier by Matthew Webb, a captain in the British Navy. When the city of Dover honored Webb, the mayor exclaimed: "In the future history of the world, I don't believe that any such feat will be performed by anyone else."
Not quite. An estimated 270 swimmers have done it since Webb, including a 12-year-old girl and 65-year-old man, both in 1983.
Then, though, it was an even more extraordinary feat. Carrie Chapman Catt, an American suffragette, recalled in an AP story that in 1886 a feminist leader had said that a woman's freedom would go hand in hand with the strength of her body. "The woman of today," Catt said, "is a far better specimen physically than two generations ago ... "
And Glenna Collett, the woman's national champion golfer, said that "the men will have to try again to get the (channel-crossing) record back. ... This goes to show that women can even beat the men if they try hard enough."
Ederle became an American icon, honored with a ticker-tape parade through her native New York City. For a while thereafter she toured as a professional swimmer and, in 1939, performed in Billy Rose's Aquacade at the New York World's Fair.
-- Information from Times files and the St. Petersburg Evening Independent was used in this report.