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Laughing with the First Woman to Swim the Channel

Friday, December 5, 2003

Our correspondent recalls a buoyant afternoon spent with Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, seven years ago. Ederle died Nov. 30, at the age of 98.

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Our correspondent recalls a buoyant afternoon spent with Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, seven years ago. Ederle died Nov. 30, at the age of 98.
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(WOMENSENEWS)--Gertrude Ederle sits in a decades-old brocade armchair. At 91, she is singing exuberantly into my tape recorder. "Trudy, Trudy, you're our American daughter; Trudy, Trudy, you're like a fish in water; You swam that Channel, that treacherous sea; We knew you'd do it, We knew, we knew, we knew . . ."

The rounds of notes end in her laughter, robust and bold, like the boom of waves meeting a rock hollow. I laugh, too, and it surprises me. We're cloistered in her shades-drawn living room in Flushing, Queens, a July afternoon in 1997, with no light entering. Yet, I feel a lightness come over me, the first I've experienced for months.

Just then, Ederle's shoulders drop. She reaches out to finger the metal leg of a walker nearby. "Can you believe this is me? I used to be so strong," she says. She chuckles at the irony of being the world's fastest swimmer in 1926, a woman with "propellers on her feet," who now struggles to teeter from one room to the next.

So much of her life is like this: amazing firsts mixed the devastating setbacks. She makes her historic swim from France to England across the English Channel, the first woman to do so, at age 19, following a failed attempt the year prior. When she finally walks, victorious, onto the beach in Kingsdown, England on August 6, 1926, she is greeted with the just-published London Daily News. A blundering headline, written while Ederle was still swimming, erroneously announces her failure.

"Even the most uncompromising champion of the rights and capacities of women must admit that in contests of physical skill, speed and endurance, they must remain forever the weaker sex," the editors wrote. Having smashed the records of all the male Channel swimmers by two hours, Ederle holds the paper aloft and poses.


Pulling Away from Undertow of Despondency

But 71 years after millions have poured out to a ticker tape parade in her honor, she is no longer news. She slowly faded from public attention, losing her hearing entirely in the cold water exploits, suffering a nervous breakdown and breaking her back in a fall that requires confinement in a cast for 48 months. In her later years, she rarely forays outside. She's been burgled five times. Her groceries are delivered by Joe, a muscular post office clerk with thick swimming arms who does this on his lunch hour.

"Once you know her, you can't help but want to help her," he says.

I'm not here on assignment. In fact, I've already folded her story into a drama, "How She Played the Game," about six remarkable women from sports history. Ederle sent a letter upon its production, signing with her trademark, "Swimmingly Yours."

The buoyancy in those two words is what lead me here. At the time, I am unable to muster the passion for writing that has always sustained me. Two bruising book projects over the previous three years have left me reeling. On one book, my name is barely visible on the cover. The other, exposing injustice in an historic murder I investigated for five financially-strained years, is bought for a true-life television drama. The producer has announced that the "person who might be me" will, in fact, be a man.

Ederle sensed, I believe, the undertow of despondency when I stood on her porch, flowers in hand. At first she says she's sorry; she doesn't recall receiving my card setting up this appointment. As she is closing the door, whimsically, she pauses and asks, "Do you want to see the Channel Room?"


'I Was a Daring Devil'

In seconds I am up the stairs to a mini-museum, reflexively pulling out my notepad. I scribble what I see. A lamp with a mermaid base. A framed drawing, "Gertrude Ederle, Venus of the Sea." A proclamation from the Women's Swimming Association: "Good sportsmanship is greater than victory." A letter she wrote from England after the Channel swim: "We did it, Mother."

"The greatest obstacle to that swim, in my opinion," she tells me downstairs, "was fear. I was never fearful of anything, you know. I was a daring devil." I picture my own, less extraordinary, moments of daring--canoeing the Mississippi River, driving a cab, tackling books that require years of dogged research.

Ederle is on a roll. "To tell the truth, I never thought I was going to be a champion. You know what I mean? I felt life threw it at me. But my sister Meg saw it, see?" she says. "When she told me I could swim the Channel, I thought she went crazy. She said, 'Why can't you at least try? How do you know until you try?' I said, 'You got a point there, you know.'" Her laugh rises again.

"She was my inspiration. I was exceedingly happy all day long on that swim. To this day, as I recall, I can't believe how happy I felt," says Ederle.

The afternoon escapes us. Ederle willfully glides past difficult times. Except for one. Weakened after her fall in 1933, she starts to agree with the 15 specialists who said she'd never walk again. Then impresario Billy Rose offers an opportunity to swim in the Aquacade at the World's Fair in Queens in 1939.

"He said 'Give it all you have, Gert.' So I did," she says, describing the powerful strokes that carry her across the Amphitheater pool. "Billy said, 'Gee, I wanted you to swim fast, Gert, but not like a bat out of hell.' Oh, I could have hugged him. Because from that day on, I began to walk again--naturally, without falling."

On the subway home, I am splashing ideas onto my pad. Therapists unburden troubles; Ederle offers a story, a song, a laugh. I realize I am exceedingly happy.

Cynthia L. Cooper is a playwright and journalist in New York.

For more information:

A Look at Gertrude Ederle:
http://www.msu.edu/~grawbur1/iahweb.html