“ENGLAND OR DROWN!” proclaimed the New York Daily News on its frontpages. It was August 6, 1926, the day that an American, Gertrude Ederle, was poised to become the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Only five men had ever swum the waterway before. The challenges included quickly changing tides, six-foot waves, frigid temperatures and lots of jellyfish. That day, Ederle not only made it across, she beat all of the previous men’s times—swimming 35 miles in 14 and a half hours.
Ederle was born in October 1905 to German immigrants in New York City. She learned to swim at the local public pool and the New Jersey beach, and dropped out of school when she was a teenager to swim competitively. She joined the Women’s Swimming Association and won her first local competition award at age 16. Two years later, she made it to the 1924 Olympics.
“America was at the forefront of the world of swimming and women swimming,” says Gavin Mortimer, author of The Great Swim. “She was at just the right age to capitalize on it. And clearly, she had a very competitive streak.”
The 18-year-old Ederle hoped to win three Olympic gold medals at the 1924 Paris Games, and was disappointed to receive only one gold in her team event and two bronze medals in her singles events. But while she was abroad, she got an idea for what she wanted to do next: swim the channel between France and England.
She first tried to cross the English Channel in 1925, but didn’t make it all the way across. The English press claimed she was disqualified because someone in the support boat that followed her across the water had touched her (support boat riders could give her food and drink but couldn’t touch her). However, Mortimer says the British press invented this story out of a sense of national rivalry.
“It was really just that they got the tide wrong and she hadn’t prepared for it enough,” he says. “You’ve got this ebb and flow tide, which changes every five to six hours. So you don’t swim in a straight line; you’ve got to zig zag to go with the tide.”
Her trainer Bill Burgess, the second person ever to swim the channel, told her to quit when he thought she struggling too much to continue.
“She claimed that her trainer made her quit, that she would have gone on to swim it,” says Tim Dahlberg, co-author of America’s Girl: The Incredible Story of How Swimmer Gertrude Ederle Changed the Nation. “But it just made her all the more determined to come back in 1926 and actually do it.” (In addition, her father promised her a red roadster if she made it across.)
When Ederle arrived the next year to try again at age 20, she was better prepared to follow the tides. Crucially, she also had eschewed the traditional bathing suit that she’d worn last time for a practical one she designed herself.
Women’s bathing suits were basically wool dresses with stockings and shoes when they emerged in the late 19th century. Reformers argued that these suits were heavy and unsafe, but many women continued to wear them because skimpier suits were taboo, and possibly illegal. In 1907, police at Boston’s Revere Beach arrested an Australian swimmer named Annette Kellerman for wearing a one-piece suit that showed her bare legs.
During Ederle’s first attempt across the channel, she wore a heavy one-piece that filled with water and chaffed her skin. But on August 6, 1926, she arrived at the French end of the channel wearing a lighter two-piece she’d fashioned by cutting up a one-piece. “She was so slathered in grease and such that it was hardly recognizable,” Dahlberg notes.
Her support boat was packed with chicken legs, oranges and vegetable chicken soup to sustain her on her journey to from Cape Gris-Nez in France to Dover, England. Reporters also followed her by boat, turning her swim into an all-day media event.
“They use wireless for really the first time like a play-by-play sports event,” says Dahlberg, who is also a sports writer for the Associated Press. “They had a wireless machine aboard the tug that was accompanying her, and they would send reports to London to the newspapers on where she was, how she was doing.”
The wireless messages allowed newspapers to update Ederle’s progress in different editions published throughout the day. When she arrived on the shore of Dover that eventing, there was a crowd of people waiting to welcome her because they’d read she was getting close.
One journalist following her by boat was so eager to get his story in he jumped into the water and headed to the nearest pub to file it over the phone. Ederle, meanwhile, was so exhausted she could barely lift herself up on the beach.
“She’s been described at the end of the swim as looking like a boxer,” Mortimer says “because the water clobbers her face. She was all bruised. And also her tongue had swelled up so much because of the salt water, she could hardly speak.” In addition, she had some jellyfish stings.
Back in the U.S., two million people greeted Ederle with New York City’s first ticker-tape parade. President Calvin Coolidge dubbed her “America’s best girl,” and her father bought her that red roadster. “She had this few months of being the most famous person in the world,” Mortimer says.
That fame was eclipsed in May 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Compared to this technological feat, Ederle’s seemed old fashioned.
“He became the new hero,” Mortimer says. “She was almost like a relic overnight.”
Even so, Ederle’s achievement made a lasting contribution to women’s sports during a decade in which gender roles were shifting. In the early ‘20s, American golf champion Edith Cummings became the first female athlete on the cover of Time, French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen dominated Wimbledon and Ederle proved a woman could best a man in one of the most physically demanding swims in the world.
Her accomplishments paved the way for other female swimmers. The next four people to successfully swim the channel after her were all women. Ederle held onto her title of fastest English Channel swim until 1951, when a woman named Winnie Roach-Leuszler—the first Canadian to swim the channel—beat her by about an hour.