On this day in 1926, on her second attempt, 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim the 21 miles from Dover, England, to Cape Griz-Nez across the English Channel, which separates Great Britain from the northwestern tip of France.
Ederle was born to German immigrants on October 23, 1906, in New York City. She did not learn to swim until she was nine years old, and it was not until she was 15 that she learned proper form in the water. Just two years later, at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Ederle won a gold medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay and a bronze in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle races. In June 1925, Ederle became the first woman to swim the length of New York Bay, breaking the previous men’s record by swimming from the New York Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 7 hours 11 minutes. That same summer, Ederle made her first attempt at crossing the notoriously cold and choppy English Channel, but after eight hours and 46 minutes, her coach, Jabez Wolff, forced her to stop, out of concern that she was swallowing too much saltwater. Ederle disagreed and fired Wolff, replacing him with T.W. Burgess, a skilled Channel swimmer.
On August 6, 1926, Ederle entered the water at Cape Gris-Nez in France at 7:08 a.m. to make her second attempt at the Channel. The water was predictably cold as she started out that morning, but unusually calm. Twice that day, however–at noon and 6 p.m.–Ederle encountered squalls along her route and Burgess urged her to end the swim. Ederle’s father and sister, though, who were riding in the boat along with Burgess, agreed with Ederle that she should stay the course. Ederle’s father had promised her a new roadster at the conclusion of the swim, and for added motivation he called out to her in the water to remind her that the roadster was only hers if she finished. Ederle persevered through storms and heavy swells, and, finally, at 9:04 p.m. after 14 hours and 31 minutes in the water, she reached the English coast, becoming the sixth person and first woman to swim the Channel successfully. Furthermore, she had bettered the previous record by two hours.
Afterward, Ederle told Alec Rutherford of The New York Times, “I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.” Ederle’s feat was celebrated by a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and she received congratulations from fans ranging from the mayor of New York City to Henry Sullivan, the first American man ever to swim the Channel.
Ederle damaged her hearing during the Channel swim, and went on to spend much of her adult life teaching deaf children in New York City to swim. She died in 2003 at the age of 98.