Gertrude Ederle Biography

Swimmer, Athlete(1905–2003)
American swimmer Gertrude Ederle achieved fame when she competed in the 1924 Olympics and became the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926.

Synopsis

Gertrude Ederle was born in New York City on October 23, 1905. She was a champion swimmer by her late teen years, and she competed in the 1924 Olympics. In 1926, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel; her record-breaking achievement brought her a period of fame and acclaim. In her private later life, she taught swimming at a school for deaf children. She died at the age of 98.

Early Life and Career

Gertrude Ederle was born on October 23, 1905, in New York City. She was one of five children of Henry and Anna Ederle, German immigrants who owned a butcher shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side. From a young age she was passionate about swimming, which she learned at the local public pool and at the New Jersey beach where her family spent summers.

As a teen, Ederle left school to train as a competitive swimmer and joined the Women's Swimming Association. Competing locally, she had her first win at the age of 16, and between 1921 and 1925 she held 29 records.

Career Highlights and Fame

In 1924, Ederle swam at the Olympic Games in Paris, where her freestyle team won three medals. In 1925, she began training to swim across the English Channel, the 21 miles of water between England and the European mainland. Five male swimmers had already crossed the channel (the first was English swimmer Matthew Webb in 1875), but she wanted to be the first woman to achieve this goal.

Ederle's first attempt to swim the channel, in 1925, was disqualified halfway through on a technicality. She made her second, successful try on August 6, 1926. 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 was greeted by near-riotous crowds when she returned home to New York. Excited admirers welcomed her at the dock, thronged the streets along the ticker-tape parade in her honor, and mobbed her upon her arrival at City Hall, where Mayor Jimmy Walker congratulated her. She also received praise from President Calvin Coolidge, who called her "America's Best Girl" and invited her to the White House.

For several years, America's "Queen of the Waves" was a sports star and a cultural sensation on par with Babe Ruth or Charles Lindbergh. Her record remained unbroken until 1950.

Later Life

After her channel swim, Ederle made a profitable tour on the vaudeville circuit, giving swimming demonstrations. She also appeared in a short film about her life and career. After suffering a severe back injury in 1933, she was never able to compete again, although she did give swim performances at the "Aquacade" attraction of the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Her later life was quiet: She said that she had achieved her one ambition by crossing the English Channel. She taught swimming to children at the Lexington School for the Deaf. She never married and she lived quietly with several female friends in the Flushing, Queens, neighborhood of New York City. A hearing problem that had troubled Ederle since her childhood caused her eventual deafness.

Ederle died in Wyckoff, New Jersey, in 2003 at the age of 98. The Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, complete with a pool, bears her name on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where she grew up and first learned to swim.

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