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Young Woman & the Sea

The life of Trudy Ederle, first woman to swim the English Channel.

By / August 27, 2009



It’s hard to imagine a time when the Summer Olympics didn’t conjure up images of sharkskin-clad, chiseled athletes. Michael Phelps drew 31.1 million viewers in his hunt for eight gold medals in 2008. Dara Torres inspired countless middle-aged athletes when she captured the silver in the 50-meter freestyle at the same Olympics at the age of 41.

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It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the thought of surviving in water – let alone swimming – invoked fear and trembling among ordinary citizens. Not until the turn of the 20th century did organized swimming take shape, and largely in response to the frequency in which people were drowning in open water.

The Manhattan Women’s Swimming Association (WSA), founded in 1917, aimed to teach women and children how to swim. And one of those youngsters was Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., would not only go on to become one of the globe’s fastest swimmers but also the first woman to cross the English Channel. Glenn Stout does a masterly job of re-creating her feat in Young Woman & the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World.

Ederle’s story mirrors a churning surf with its unpredictable rises and falls in athletic achievement; its massive public interest, which again and again vanished like a wave upon sand; and an ever-present silence. The young swimmer had lost most of her hearing in a bout of early childhood illness. Social encounters outside her large family, who were of German descent, were awkward and trying. She frequently misunderstood what was said to her and spoke too loudly in response. Swimming for hours on end became Ederle’s natural escape, a submerged world where she was neither required to hear or be understood.

Stout thoroughly presents several historic developments that were occurring as the reclusive teenage Ederle was gradually recognized as a standout swimmer in open-water races. One was the development of the American crawl, an overarm thrashing stroke known today as freestyle. Another was an expanded view of what women could achieve as women’s rights organizations grew more vocal and groups such as the WSA started producing results (in this case, exceptional swimmers). Further, the end of World War I left the public hungry for entertainment. “With the possible exception of the speakeasy,” writes Stout, “spectator sports suddenly became America’s favorite pastime.” And the English Channel itself, now freed from battleships, had become a stage upon which swimming adventurists tested their mettle – and upon which Ederle was the first to prove the strength of her sex.

Stout carefully plays out these forces so that by the time we are trailing Ederle in a tugboat from France to Dover the weight of her achievement and the world’s thundering response provoked a stream of tears from this reader.

It came as a bit of a surprise in the summer of 1922 when the previously unremarkable 15-year-old Ederle trounced the best female swimmer in the world, Hilda James, in an unexpected win in a long-distance race along Manhattan Beach. Despite the wind and rain that day, Ederle swam with utter enjoyment, thoughts of herself forgotten. “It was that simple. The other girls swam to get back to land, but Ederle swam, well, to get away from everything, and in doing so, out in the water, she found her own true self, the place where she felt most comfortable, where she did not think or worry but simply felt the water holding her up and pushing her along.”

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