March 21, 2016–Gertrude Ederle, Queen of the Waves
The first time she went in the water over her knees, Gertrude Ederle nearly drowned. She slipped and fell under the surface of a pond in Germany where her immigrant family had returned to visit. She was nine years old and hadn’t even mastered the dog-paddle.
Her father pulled her from the water, spluttering and gasping. It wasn’t fair. Her sisters could swim. They played in the water like otters, while young Trudy sat on shore watching. That’s when her father decided to help her out. He tied a rope around her waist and cast her out into the water like a bright fish, holding her above the surface as she thrashed and laughed. In no time, she was clever as trout. Her life-long love of the water had begun.
Ederle was born in 1906 in Manhattan, New York, the third of six children of a German immigrant family. Soon after her father taught her to swim, Ederle joined the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA), paying $3 in a yearly fee, and took up competitive swimming in a tiny indoor swimming pool.
Ederle was 12 years old when she joined the WSA and that same year she set her first World Record in the 880 yd Freestyle, becoming the youngest world record holder in swimming.
She set eight more records after that by 1922. In total, she would set 29 records Us National and World Records from 1921 to 1925. At the 1924 Summer Olympics she won a gold medal and came home with her teammates to a ticker tape parade.
In 1925 she turned professional and became a long distance swimmer. She swam 22 miles from Battery Park to Sandy Hook in 7 hours and 11 minutes. In 1926, she set her sights on the English Channel.
Nobody believed a woman could swim the channel. A handful of men had done it before her. Ederle made her first attempt in 1825, and failed. Her coach sent another swimmer into the water to fetch her when he thought she was drowning. Ederle later said she was only resting.
She made her second attempt the next year on Aug. 6th. This time nothing would stop her. Her family rented a tug and chugged along beside her singing “Yes, we have no bananas” and cheering her on. Her sister lowered fried chicken over the side of the boat on her breaks.
Covered in grease, Ederle waded into the waters off France and swam the 22 miles of vigorous tidal waters to Kingsdown, England, stumbling ashore with a time of 14 hours and 34 minutes. Not only was she the first woman to swim the English Channel, she was also the fastest swimmer to ever do it, shattering the closest time set by Charles Toth of Boston who swam it in 16 hours and 40 minutes.
Ederle was an instant hero. She became “Our Trudy” and returned home to another ticker tape parade, this one all for honor. She continued to swim long distance and eventually went on the Vaudeville Circuit. Due to a childhood illness, Ederle had lost most of her hearing, and in later years she found gratification and employment teaching deaf children to swim.
She was one of our country’s first iconic sports heroes. The Muhammed Ali of her day. She said she never felt alone when she was swimming long distances. “The water sounds like a voice in my ear and I know I’m not alone,” she once said.
Ederle never married. She died in 2003 in New Jersey. To this day, an annual swim from New York City’s Battery Park to Sandy Hook, New Jersey is called the Ederle Swim in her memory and follows the course she used to swim.