Gertrude Ederle

First woman to swim the Channel

Gertrude Ederle, swimmer: born New York 23 October 1905; died Wyckoff, New Jersey 30 November 2003.

In the gathering darkness of an August evening in 1926, a young New York woman named Gertrude Ederle staggered ashore at Kingsdown, just south of Deal in Kent. She was the first woman to swim the Channel - and would become, albeit briefly, a heroine of her age.

Ederle's feat was all the more remarkable because of the conditions: a choppy sea, treacherous cross-currents and driving rain. Smeared in sheep grease and accompanied by a small boat, she set off from Cap Griz Nez near Calais at 7.05am. Had she been able to swim in a straight line, she would have reached England after just 21 miles. That 6 August, however, she was driven on a north-westerly course; when she stumbled onto the beach at Kingsdown 14 hours and 31 minutes later, she had covered no less than 35 miles.

Ederle began her epic journey by singing the 1910 number "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to the rhythm of her stroke. Then her minders in the boat then held up signs with words like "One Wheel" or "Two Wheels", reminding her of the red roadster car she had been promised by New York's Daily News if she made it. And she did - two hours faster than any of the five men who had swum the Channel before her. The record stood until 1950.

She returned to New York as a Roaring Twenties celebrity to match the baseball idol Babe Ruth, the boxer Jack Dempsey or the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who the following year made the first solo flight across the Atlantic.

On 27 August, two million people attended a ticker-tape parade in her honour through the city's financial district, at one point forcing her to take refuge in the Mayor's private office when boisterous admirers stormed City Hall. She received book offers by the dozen and countless marriage proposals. Someone even wrote a song about it, "Tell Me Trudy, Who Is Going to Be the Lucky One?"

There was a visit to the White House, where the President Calvin Coolidge called her "America's best girl", expressing his amazement that a woman "of your small stature" could swim the Channel. It was an odd remark; at 142lb, Ederle was solidly built, almost plump.

The next few years were a whirl. She earned a reputed $2,000 a week, after signing up for a vaudeville tour. In Hollywood, she starred in a brief movie about herself. As an icon of women's emancipation, she received many speaking offers. The pressure brought her close to a nervous breakdown.

Swimming had been Ederle's favourite pursuit from early childhood. She called herself a "water baby" and insisted on swimming even after doctors had warned it would worsen a hearing problem that later in her life turned into total deafness.

By the early Twenties she had set a host of women's records, and in 1924 she won three medals at the Paris Olympics, including a gold in the 400m freestyle relay - and might well have done even better had she not been nursing an injured knee. The Channel became the ultimate challenge; in 1925 Ederle's first attempt ended in failure after 23 miles and almost nine hours in the water. A year later, she fulfilled her ambition, in spectacular style.

By the mid-1930s her fame had faded. Though never poor, she had attained celebrity before celebrity brought fortunes. At the outset of the Second World War, she took a job working at La Guardia airport, checking aircraft flight instruments, living quietly in the New York borough of Queens.

Later she taught swimming to deaf children, and endorsed a new model bacteria-free swimming pool. Her feat, however, was never quite forgotten, as reporters unfailingly sought interviews on the major anniversaries of her swim. "I have no complaints," she said in one. "I am comfortable and satisfied. I am not a person who reaches for the moon so long as I have the stars."

Rupert Cornwell

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