America's Girl

The Incredible Story of How Swimmer Gertrude Ederle Changed the Nation

Tim Dahlberg with Mary Ederle Ward and Brenda Greene

St. Martin's Press

1 "Bring On Your Old Channel"

August 1925, Cape Gris-Nez, France

The grease was the worst. Inside the engine room of the tug La Morinie bobbing up and down just off the coast of France, Gertrude Ederle was having it slathered on anyway, one layer at a time. She would need all the protection she could get, even though it was mid-August and the always-chilly English Channel was as warm as it had been in two years.

The sharks were another thing. There wasn’t much protection against them, just the hope that the commotion of a tug carrying an odd assortment of journalists, musicians, trainers, friends, and the simply curious would keep them at bay as Ederle swam alongside. Two nights earlier, fishermen had caught two six-footers seven miles off the French coast, giving the young swimmer one more thing to worry about as she excitedly got ready for the adventure of her life. Ederle’s camp tried to keep the news about the sharks from her, but it was hard to keep a secret when the offending sharks were hung up in front of the central post office in the nearby town of Boulogne.

Trying to swim the Channel was difficult enough without troubling thoughts to weigh on a young girl’s mind. It was only twenty-one miles from the rocky outcropping of Cape Gris-Nez to the English shore, but veterans knew the swim was at least half again that because of the tide from the Atlantic Ocean, which continually moved in and back out.

From the French side, the white cliffs of Dover looked tantalizingly close on a clear day, but the punishing waves, tricky currents, frigid waters, and assorted marine life combined to beat back almost everyone who dared challenge this stretch of water. Scores had tried over the years, but only a handful had succeeded, and all had been men.

The Channel was an uneasy beast to master. If the cold wasn’t enough, the waves, which seemed to rise from nowhere, could stop any would-be conqueror. Every day it was a battle zone of sorts, with the North Sea forcing itself through the Strait of Dover into the narrow opening, only to be pushed back by currents from the Atlantic. Add to that the biting jellyfish, Portuguese men-of-war, sunken ships, and even the occasional shark waiting in the water, none of them particularly happy about sharing their environment with a foreigner, and the swim was treacherous indeed.

The body of water had stretched the imagination of those who had stood on its shores for centuries. Julius Caesar had prepared his long-beaked ships to cross it half a century before the beginning of the Christian era, and William the Conqueror had tried it with a great fleet of flat-bottomed boats eleven centuries later. Napoléon had eyed it longingly, certain that it held the key to his domination of Europe, and assembled a fleet of specially prepared ships at Boulogne for an invasion that never occurred.

"Let me be master of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world," Napoléon said to his staff as they contemplated their great army encamped on the heights above town. Napoléon wouldn’t succeed, and a group of desperate British airmen more than a century later made sure Adolf Hitler wouldn’t, either. The great Channel refused to be taken easily by anyone, whether in great ships or in a simple swimsuit. The thought of a woman doing it seemed preposterous to many, especially when it came to a teenager who couldn’t understand the difficulties she would face.

Ederle, a sturdy New Yorker with a pocketful of Olympic medals and a shy but endearing smile, wasn’t the first of the fairer sex to try the Channel. There had been several attempts, and as the summer of 1925 wore on, Argentina’s Lillian Harrison was there to try for a fourth time. France’s Jeanne Sion would also make an attempt, as would London typist Mercedes Gleitze.

None had Ederle’s pedigree. And none had her grit.

"I’m not sure I’ll make it, but I’ll try my best," Ederle said before getting on the Cunard liner Berengaria and crossing the Atlantic. "If I don’t make it the first time, I may try again."

Oddsmakers thought little about the chances of this daughter of German immigrants, a girl who had learned to swim while tied to a rope in the river off the family summer home in New Jersey. Lloyd’s of London opened betting at 20–1 against her reaching land in England, though a rush of money wired from the United States brought that down to 7–1 by the time she entered the water.

The bookies knew what they were doing. Though a few men had managed to make it across, there were a dozen who had failed for every one who had succeeded. Even when the the swimmers were slathered in grease to ward off the cold, the swim was such a marathon that the elements usually won. If they didn’t, the masses of jellyfish picked off the rest with bites that were both painful and poisonous.

The summer of 1925 was a big one on the Channel. England was at peace and rebuilding from the Great War, the Roaring Twenties were adding to a new prosperity in the United States, and swimmers were arriving from around the world to test the most dangerous—and famous—swim of the times. Adding to the intrigue was a curious phenomenon that had developed over the previous few years, as brash women made their way to France to try and strike a blow for their gender and show everyone that the weaker sex wasn’t so weak after all.

If any woman had a chance, it was the nineteen-year-old with a shy yet engaging smile and broad shoulders whom everyone called Trudy. She was a swimming wunderkind, this daughter of a portly German butcher and his equally stout wife, who had emigrated to the United States years earlier. Trudy spent her summers at the beach, loved to swim in the ocean, and had been smashing world records since the age of fifteen.

America was captivated by this tomboy, who had muscles but professed her love for house work and family. Newspapers followed her every move as she set records at one meet, only to break them at the next. Trudy wasn’t only good; she was good copy. Modest and unassuming, she was the antithesis to the flappers of the day, a clean-living young woman whose smiling face became a fixture of the tabloids and broadsheets that engaged in fierce daily battles for circulation in New York City.

The Evening World summed up the spirit of the times in a lengthy feature on Ederle that extolled her as "just a normal home and fun loving American." To prove its point, she was shown doing house work and talking about how cooking was one of her favorite things to do. In one picture, Trudy was manning a skillet, and the caption read "Kitchen work is good training."

The paper then broke into verse about her:

She loves sports and fun.

She loves home and family.

She’s everything the converse of the flighty flapper.

She’s an American and a New Yorker.

Another columnist was more taken with how the women swimmers seemed in perfect physical condition and radiated health. These weren’t the floozies who partied at illicit speakeasies and wore dresses that crept up to shocking heights. They were all-American girls, so modest that, more often than not, they would don heavy sweaters over their swimming suits whenever a photographer was near.

"It is insignificant of these young athletes that their conversations, which mirror their minds, are as sound, as wholesome as their bodies," Jane Dixon wrote. "They display none of the characteristics of exotic young ladies of flapperdom whose chief offensive weapon in the eternal feminine game of being attractive is a lipstick and a pot of rouge." Dixon rhapsodized that if swimming could build this kind of girl, it was the duty of the country to get girls to swim or do other sports, "so that America may continue to be supreme on land and sea."

Indeed, for the first time, women were beginning to make their mark in sports that previously had been the exclusive province of men. Females were playing tennis (though they played in long skirts), and girls were playing on basketball and even hockey teams. Women had just gotten the vote five years earlier, and they were taking advantage of liberating times to push their daughters across frontiers they had never had a chance to cross.

The swimmers captured the most attention. Ederle was the young sensation, but she had plenty of company among both sexes. A muscular young man named Johnny Weissmuller was the star of the 1924 Olympics, winning three gold medals, while the American men and women won all but three swimming and diving events and swept the medals in six of them.

Among the women swimmers, Ederle stood out, partly because she was so young, but mainly because she was so good. She had been smashing world records much of the decade, and had won three medals herself at the Paris Olympics the year before. Newspapers were so taken with her that they were breathless in their comparisons to the great athletes of the time. Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey had nothing on Trudy, one reported, because she had a chest expansion of eight inches, while Dempsey had only three and a half and Ruth only three and a quarter. Even heavyweight Tom Sharkey, who bragged about his chest, could only expand it six inches.

"Nature has equipped Miss Ederle for prodigious feats in the water," columnist Frank F. O’Neill wrote. "She has great strength and her muscles and nerve tissues are well coated with a protecting layer of cold resisting fat, although she is perfectly molded."

Trudy’s exploits were known around the nation, which embraced her with the kind of exuberance with which it was embracing the decade. Calvin Coolidge was president, and his wife, Grace, was so impressed with the young swimmers in the summer of 1925 that she hired a swimming coach to teach her the eight-beat American crawl, which Trudy and other members of the Women’s Swimming Association used in the water. For weeks, the First Lady practiced it off the coast of Swampscott, Massachusetts, where the summer White House was located.

Ederle was still a teen, though she wasn’t as young as the newspapers reported. They thought she was eighteen, but she was actually a year older and had already traveled the world, winning medals and setting records. The discrepancy in age was likely a function of the WSA, which liked its swimmers to be as young as possible so that more donations could be raised, and Trudy played along with this throughout her career.

As the summer of 1925 approached, Trudy still held a number of world records, though a stumble in the Olympics a year earlier had taken some of her aura of invincibility away. The next Olympics were three years away, an eternity for a young woman, but she seemed content to spend another season traveling with her WSA teammates to meets and exhibitions around the country.

Fellow Olympian Helen Wainwright had another idea. She had heard about the flurry of challenges to attempt swimming the Channel and knew that an American swimmer, Mille Gade Corson, had nearly made it across two years earlier. She also knew that the country was ready to celebrate the success of any woman who might pull off such a spectacular feat.

Wainwright asked the WSA to sponsor her on the swim, and Charlotte Epstein, the club’s found er, readily agreed, despite a prohibitive price tag of about nine thousand dollars. The young club was dominating women’s swimming in the United States, but Epstein knew that a lot more glory could be had if one of its members became the first woman to swim the Channel. A chaperone for Wainwright was picked, and arrangements were made for her to leave in June for France and a try at the angry Channel.

Ederle’s older sister, Margaret, a swimmer herself, heard about the plans at a meet at the City Athletic Club and urged her younger sister to apply to the WSA board of directors to make a try herself, since she had already beaten Wainwright in open-water swims. The two of them could go overseas together, help each other train, and maybe even spur each other on to greater things, Margaret suggested.

"Margaret, what, are you crazy? I never swam long distances like that," Trudy replied.

The idea began to grow, mostly because Meg never stopped pushing her sister to try. Finally, Trudy stepped forward and asked to go herself, and Epstein agreed to dig into the club’s savings for more money to fund both women. But in late spring, Wainwright slipped while getting on a trolley car and strained a thigh muscle, and suddenly Ederle was facing the swim of a lifetime by herself.

Ederle was shocked when she found out Wainwright wasn’t going. But she had already been swimming in the Shrewsbury River in Highlands, New Jersey, to accustom herself to the icy waters she would face in the Channel, and she had gotten used to the idea that this would be a grand adventure, despite the risk.

So when the press rushed up to her and asked if she would still go overseas, she had her answer ready. Wainwright’s withdrawal may have taken some of the glamour out of the trip, but Ederle was nothing but determined once she made up her mind.

"I said I would go, and I’m going," Ederle quickly replied.

From across the ocean, the Channel was calling. And Trudy was hearing it loud and clear.

The morning of August 18 dawned clear, and the waters on the rocky French shore were as calm as those of an Italian lake. Ederle slept well before beating the sun up at 4:00 A.M. for a breakfast of well-done apple fritters and hot tea. It seemed a good day to make history, and she was more than ready to go. She had been testing the waters of the Channel for weeks now, sidelined only by a bout of stomach flu, and as her hours in the chilly waters mounted, she had grown increasingly confident of her chances.

Yet all had not gone well in camp. To prepare her for the swim, the WSA had hired a portly man named Jabez Wolffe to be her trainer. Wolffe seemed an odd choice, having set a record in futility for swimming the Channel by failing in twenty-two attempts himself, but he knew both the currents and the whims of the tempestuous Channel better than anyone and was thought to be well worth the fifty dollars a week his expertise would cost.

Though Wolffe may have been the unluckiest Channel aspirant, he had a lot of ideas about what would work and what wouldn’t work in the water, mostly because he had spent so much time in it. He had tried almost everything to get across, including having a man play the bagpipes to keep his stroke in rhythm, and it had almost paid off. In 1911, he missed making it across by mere yards, and only by a mile on three other occasions.

Trudy liked Wolffe upon meeting him, but it was not long before friction surfaced between the two. She was a natural swimmer imbued with God-given speed and the cockiness of youth, while he seemed to her like a fat old man who talked too much about things she never worried herself about. For his part, Wolffe was particularly upset over Ederle’s refusal to submit to proper massaging, which the trainer said was necessary to harden her muscles for the swim.

Ederle would train four hours a day, walking for two hours and swimming for two more. The rest of the time, she liked either to read or hang around the assortment of swimmers who had come for their own Channel attempts, often with her prized ukulele in her hands.

Her ukulele playing irritated Wolffe, who thought that his swimmer was too lighthearted in approaching what to him seemed such a serious task. She would strum the instrument in front of Wolffe, who sometimes asked for certain songs, but more often than not he would mutter about Ederle wasting her time. As the days went on, Ederle grew tired of Wolffe’s constant carping at her about the dangers and difficulties of the Channel, which had defeated him so many times before.

"I need all the encouragement that can be given me," she said. "After all, I’m no Jack Dempsey and I don’t get half a million dollars for my efforts. So if I dance in the evening or pick a ukulele for pleasure, I don’t think it should be reported as a scandal in the training camp. You swim the Channel for the fun and the glory of it. So why should it be regarded as a solemn effort?"

Wolffe thought it should be, and he was so upset with his young charge that he nearly took a boat home to England two days before the attempt. Friends prevailed on him to stay, and Wolffe grudgingly did, motivated by the chance that he could bask in the reflected glory of the first woman to tame the mighty Channel.

Wolffe knew that Trudy had a rare talent, and if he didn’t understand it when she first arrived from the States, watching her swim day after day in training convinced him. On the eve of the swim, he was a believer in the brash American girl, though he would have felt better had Ederle actually listened to some of his advice.

"Miss Ederle doubtless is the finest exponent of swimming of any man or woman who has ever tried the Channel," Wolffe said. "She can swim the Channel, and I would have felt confident of her success had she followed my training instructions. She may be one of those athletic marvels who don’t require any special training for tremendous tasks. If she succeeds she will prove herself not only the greatest living swimmer, but the greatest swimmer of all time."

The Channel, Wolffe well knew, was unforgiving. It could beat down the most physically fit and force even the most mentally tough to quit. On a calm day, it was tough enough, forcing swimmers to deal with the cold, the tides, the sand shelves, and the sharks and jellyfish. But there was seldom a calm day on the sliver of water between England and France.

Wolffe seldom stopped telling Trudy about how tough the Channel was, that she might have to swim up to fifty miles to conquer it, and that many horrors awaited anyone who tried. He also thought she had the wrong stroke for making it across, feeling the Channel favored a slow and deliberate swimmer, not one built for speed like the strongly built American. He wanted to change her swimming style to the breaststroke to slow her down, something Trudy wasn’t about to do, since her American crawl stroke was as necessary to her swimming as breathing was to living.

While Trudy may have been just nineteen, she was the greatest female amateur swimming champion in the world, something that gave her more than a little bargaining power with her trainer. Trudy argued successfully, with help from chaperone Elsie Viets from the WSA and others, that she would swim the stroke she knew best, but she couldn’t help but notice that Wolffe’s attitude changed and he was never quite as happy with his young charge as before.

Excerpted from America’s Girl by Tim Dahlberg, Mary Ederle Ward and Brenda Greene.
Copyright 2009 by Tim Dahlberg with Mary Ederle Ward and Brenda Greene.
Published in August 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.