Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Gertrude Ederle

Episode Summary

Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003) was a record-setting swimmer -- she made waves at the Olympics and was the first woman to swim across the English Channel.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

 All April we’re going to be talking about Explorers and Contenders, women who veered outside of prescribed gender norms to accomplish feats in fields strongly associated with men. These women literally discovered new paths and/or participated in incredible athletic endeavors. I personally find this group inspiring, especially at this moment when many of us are stuck indoors.  

Our contender today was a record-setting swimmer. Her accomplishments include competing in the Olympics and becoming the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Let’s talk  about Gertrude Ederle. 

Gertrude was born on October 23, 1905 in New York City, to Henry and Anna Ederle, German Immigrants who owned a butcher shop.

Gertrude was one of five children. As a child, she had a hearing impairment that would become more severe over time. Growing up, her family spent summers at the New Jersey shore. It was there, and at a local public pool in New York City, that Gertrude first learned to swim. She was a natural and quickly fell in love with the sport. 

   Gertrude’s talent in the pool was so evidentthat she quit school as a teenager in order to train full time. She excelled at a stroke called the 8-beat crawl, in which the swimmer kicks 8 times per every arm stroke. She joined the Women’s Swimming Association and started winning amateaur competitions. 

In 1922, still a teenager, Gertrude broke 7 records in a single afternoon at Brighton Beach.

Gertrude’s aquatic excellence took her all the way to the 1924 Paris Olympics. Her team won gold in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay and Gertrude won bronze medals for two other freestyle races.  

That was well and good but Gertrude was actually  set on earning a different kind of swimming achievement altogether. She wanted to swim across the English Channel, a wave and current filled body of water between England and France. A few men had successfully accomplished the feat by that point, but no women. Breaking that glass ceiling was Gertrude’s ultimate ambition. 

The year after the Olympics, in 1925, Gertrude made her first attempt, but was disqualified. 

A year later, in 1926, Gertrude tried again. She set off from the French coast, donned in a bikini, a swim cap, and goggles. To protect herself from the cold and any potential stings, Gertrude also covered her body with lanolin, a kind of wax that comes from wooly animals.  

This time, Gertrude succeeded. Fourteen hours and 31 minutes after leaving France, she arrived in England. Once again, she had set a record. She completed the swim a whopping 1 hour and 59 minutes faster than her male predecessors. 

Her victory was noticed. When Gertrude returned to New York City, she was greeted as a champion, praised by everyone from the mayor to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge. 

Coolidge invited Gertrude to the White House, where he deemed her, “America’s Best Girl.” 

Gertrude had become a celebrity. Her swim across the Channel was so fast that her record held for over two decades, until 1950. 

That said, her competitive swimming career was over -- perhaps partially because she had accomplished her biggest goal and partially because she was unable to compete after a 1933 back injury. 

Still, Gertrude joined the vaudeville circuit where she performed swimming demonstrations. She also swam at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. 

The hearing disability Gertrude had as a child caused her to eventually become completely deaf.

Even so, Gertrude continued sharing her passion for the pool with others. She taught kids to swim at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens where she lived with several friends. 

Gertrude Died in New Jersey in 2003. She was 98 years old. T  he Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is named  in her honor   

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!