August 6, 1926: first woman to swim across the English Channel

Cape Griz Nez, France (WHTM) Swimming across the English Channel has been one of the most daunting sporting challenges in the world. In the whole world, only five had done it, all men.

On August 6, 1926, that changed. At 7:08 a.m., twenty-year-old Gertrude Ederle, wearing a bathing cap, paraffin-sealed goggles, a two-piece bathing suit (somewhat risky by the standards of the time), and a thick layer of lanolin to protect from the cold and jellyfish stings, took a step into the water at Cap Griz Nez, France.

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Fourteen hours and 34 minutes later, Ederle landed in Kingsdown, England, becoming the first woman to swim across the channel and breaking the previous record by two hours. His record will hold until 1950.

Gertrude Ederlie was born in New York on October 23, 1905 in Manhattan. At an early age, a case of measles damaged his hearing, a problem that worsened over time.

She learned to swim very young, and it became her lifelong passion. By the time she was a teenager, she was swimming competitively. From age 15 to 19, she set 29 national and world records, including nine in a single day, at a competition in New York. At the 1924 Olympics, she won two bronze medals in the 100 and 400 meter freestyle and a gold medal in the 400 meter relay.

In 1925, she set out to become the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Her first attempt on August 8, 1925 ended in disqualification when her coach, thinking she was in distress, sent another swimmer to rescue her. (When she tried again in 1926, she had another trainer.)

On her first attempt, Ederlie wore the standard swimwear for women at the time, a loose, one-piece wool suit. Deciding it was causing too much drag, she opted for a lighter, more fitted suit – and cut it in half to reduce drag even further.

While swimming, she was accompanied by a tugboat carrying her coach, family and a New York Daily News reporter. Along the way, they passed her snacks of fruit, chicken, and soup, being very careful not to touch her, which could result in disqualification.

She was greeted by large crowds when she landed in England, and huge crowds when New York held a ticker tape parade in her honor. She had a successful vaudeville tour doing swimming demonstrations and starred in a film about her life.

Then, in 1933, she slipped, fell down a flight of stairs and badly injured her back. In fact, she was bedridden for several years. This was about the end of her competitive swimming, although she was able to make appearances at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. But by the early 1940s she had become almost completely deaf. She retired from public life and devoted herself to teaching swimming to deaf children. She passed away in 2003, aged 98, but remains a role model and inspiration to people to this day.