Gertrude Ederle – Queen of the Waves

Gertrude Ederle became known as ‘Queen of the Waves’ for her record breaking achievements in swimming; becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel.

Gertrude Ederle was born in New York city in 1905. Her parents were German immigrants who owned a butchers shop. As a child Gertrude very quickly took to the water, being taught to swim by her father during their family holidays in New Jersey.

Swimming soon became Gertrude’s passion; she left school early to commit full-time to training. At aged 12 she joined the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA), she paid $3 dollars a year so she could have access to a swimming pool (although it was very tiny). The WSA was founded by another swimming shero, Charlotte ‘Eppy’ Epstein, who had campaigned for women’s swimming and for women to be allowed to swim without stockings! (Yes believe it or not, in the early days of the sport, notions of modesty meant that women had to swim almost fully covered!)

Gertrude, or Trudy to her friends, set her first world record when she was just 15 years old! This made her the youngest ever record breaker in swimming. From there, the only way was up! She kept training and kept breaking record after record. In total between 1921-25 Trudy broke 29 world records!!

In 1924 Gertrude was part of the American tem which flew to Paris for the Olympics. She won her first gold medal as part of the 4 x 100m relay team. She also came away with two bronze medals.

Following her success in Paris Trudy turned professional. She set a world record back in her beloved New York when she swam the 22 miles from Battery Park to Sandy Hook in 7 hours, 11 minutes. (A record that stood unbeaten for 81 years!)

With nearly 30 world records under her belt, and a handful of Olympic medals to boot, Gertrude was looking for a new challenge. In the previous years a handful of men had swum the English Channel, but a woman was yet to attempt it. Trudy had it firmly in her sights.

In 1925, at just 19 years old, she was sponsored by the WSA for her first attempt. She flew to Paris and trained with a swimmer called Jabez Wolfe. Sadly it wasn’t the best training relationship, and when Gertrude made her first attempt at the channel he cut it short, pulling her from the water after a misunderstanding where he thought she was drowning.

Trudy wasn’t put off and began to prepare for a second attempt. Without the finance of the WSA to support her, she sold her story, and the rights to the attempt, to two American newspapers, who in return funded her challenge. She bagged herself a new trainer, one of the few men who had successfully swam the channel himself, and set to work.

At 7am on the morning of August 6th, 1926 Gertrude donned a red swimsuit she had designed herself, lathered her self in vaseline & sheep grease (this was to protect her from the cold & from jellyfish stings), and waded into the sea at Cap GrisNez, France.

Members of her family, as well as her training team and the reporters from the newspapers sponsoring her swim, were all on a tug boat which tracked Gertrude across the channel. It wasn’t an easy swim, the winds were fierce and the sea rough (so rough in fact that several ferry crossings had been cancelled.) Several times Trudy’s father and trainer called to her to give up and come aboard the boat for her own safety; she simply lifted her head and asked “what for?!” then carried on ploughing through the water.

Despite being blown of course by the prevailing winds, Gertrude set foot on English soil just 14 hours and 34 minutes after she set off – setting yet another world record! Not only was she the first woman ever to complete the channel crossing, but she beat the record held by the fastest man to have swum it by a full two hours! All this and she was still only 20 years old.

Gertrude after her record breaking swim!
Gertrude after her record breaking swim!

When Trudy returned to New York the city went wild! They threw the first ever ticker tape parade for their ‘Queen of the Waves’ (they also gave Trudy a suitable crown to wear to complete her newly bestowed title!) Over 2 million people crowded the streets of the city to celebrate her achievement.

The New York Times wrote that that this was “the biggest thing in athletics ever done by a woman, or a man for that matter”, and president Calvin Coolidge called her ‘America’s best girl.’

Parade for Ederle in New York City
Parade for Ederle in New York City

For some time after this Gertrude enjoyed fame and popularity. She toured on the Vaudeville circuit, remarkably taking a collapsable tank to various venues, which she would perform swimming demonstrations in! She played her self in a film called Swim Girl, Swim and even designed her own range of women’s swimwear. Her achievements in the water had inspired a generation of women and girls, and swimming became a popular pastime across the country.

Olympic swimmer Gertrude Ederle coaches actress Bebe Daniels between takes of Swim Girl, Swim
Olympic swimmer Gertrude Ederle coaches actress Bebe Daniels between takes of Swim Girl, Swim

In 1933 Gertrude suffered a serious back injury which meant she wouldn’t be able to compete professionally again. However she managed to recover enough to perform in the ‘Aquacade‘ at the New York World Fair in 1939.

As a child Trudy had suffered with a bout of measles which had left her partially deaf. As she grew older her deafness increased, but rather than be defeated by it, she turned it into something positive – coaching deaf children who were learning to swim.

Gertrude Ederle once said “People said women couldn’t swim the Channel, but I proved they could.” She not only proved that she could, but exceeded any expectations people had of her. She showed the world that a woman could be every bit as capable as a man, and by following her passion with determination she inspired many other female swimmers.

 

Find out more…

There was a book written about Gertrude’s life called America’s Girl which is still available today.

The Queen of the Channel website has lots of information about Gertrude and several other women who have made the record-breaking swim.

This video about Gertrude gives a really good overview of her life and achievements:

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