Records are made to be broken, standards are met to be surpassed, and the world is full of “firsts.” But sometimes a new record comes from an unlikely source, and it’s in those instances that something truly remarkable happens.
The remarkable happened ninety-one years ago. On August 6th, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel.1 Her feat set an amazing example for other women to follow, but it did more than that. Despite swimming in terrible conditions, Ederle smashed the records of the five men who had gone before her.
In the 1920s, few people took female athletes seriously. Even in the Olympics, female athletes were treated far poorer than their male counterparts. During the 1924 Olympics in Paris, female competitors had to stay in hotels far away from the city. The US swim team, which included Ederle, “had to travel five to six hours each day just to practice in the Olympic pool.”1
But from a very young age, Ederle knew she wanted to swim, no matter the cost. When Ederle was five she came down with the measles, which severely affected her hearing. “The doctors told me my hearing would get worse if I continued swimming,” she once said, “but I loved the water so much, I just couldn’t stop.”1
So swim she did, setting both American and world records in the process. In the aforementioned Olympics, she won both the gold and bronze medals in different events … all while suffering from an injured knee.1 But it was the Channel swim that provided the greatest challenge of all.
It didn’t come easy. To cross the Channel, Ederle started at Cape Griz-Nez in France. The goal was to come ashore at Kingsdown in England. In a straight line, it was a 21-mile swim. But the distance was the least of Ederle’s worries; she also had to contend with choppy seas, cold water, and boats. Of the five men who had already swum the Channel, the fastest had done it in a little over 16 hours. The slowest required 26 hours and 50 minutes … over one full day in the water.
Ederle’s first attempt, in a slightly different location, ended in failure. She did not get along with her trainer, a man who had tried, and failed, to swim the channel himself over twenty times. Nevertheless, she got off to a torrid start, swimming 23 miles in less than 9 hours. But at one point, her trainer, who was following along in a boat, thought she was drowning and ordered that she be recovered from the water. The result was immediate disqualification. Furious, Ederle fired her trainer and vowed to try again.2
Her second attempt came a year later. Now Ederle had something new to worry about—competition. Several other women, including three Americans, were all trying to become the first to swim the Channel. Instructing no one to interfere this time, Ederle ventured into the water at 7:00 a.m. on August 6th and started to swim. The boat that accompanied her held up signs along the way, reminding her that she had been promised a new car if she made it.1
But the ocean was very rough, with wind and waves impeding her every stroke. At one point, her new trainer was so worried that he shouted, “Gertie, you must come out!”
Ederle raised her head. “What for?”2
Fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes later, Ederle reached England. Because the sea was so turbulent, her 21-mile swim had turned into a 35-mile one. Yet she made it, breaking the previous record by two hours and two minutes. When she emerged onto the shore, the first person to greet her was an immigration officer. He requested her passport.2
Back home in New York, a ticker-tape parade was waiting. Over two million people greeted her. Men sent proposals to her in the mail. Musicians wrote songs about her. President Coolidge invited her to the White House and called her “America’s best girl.”1
That’s why we still remember her to this day. Not simply because she broke a record. Records are broken all the time. But because she broke a record when so many obstacles—her gender, her health—stood in her way.
And that is truly remarkable.
1 Richard Severo, “Gertrude Ederle, the First Woman to Swim Across the English Channel, Dies at 98,” The New York Times, December 1, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/01/sports/gertrude-ederle-the-first-woman-to-swim-across-the-english-channel-dies-at-98.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
2 “Gertrude Ederle,” Wikipedia.org, last modified on May 29, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Ederle