Back in the 1920s, women were considered inferior to men in anything physical, especially sporting events such as baseball, basketball and even swimming. Gertrude Ederle was a young woman from New York. She grew up spending her summers with her family on the Jersey Shore in the little town of Highlands where she learned to swim and became interested in competitive swimming. She was good enough to join the American Olympic Swim Team and competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. She came home with one Gold and two Bronze Medals and when the team arrived in New York, they were given a ticker tape parade!
This wasn’t enough for Gertrude. Looking for new challenges, she decided to try to swim the English Channel – the body of water that divides England from Continental Europe. It is over 20 miles wide and has strong waves, tides, and currents. It is subject to cold water, sharks, and jellyfish. Only four people had swum across it, and they were all men.
On her first attempt, her coach decided she was getting too tired and aborted the swim almost in sight of the goal. She was wearing a one-piece bathing suit which chaffed and filled with water. So not only did every stroke hurt, but she was dragging all this water with her.
You must realize that this was just at the dawn of the “Flapper Era,” and not long before, women wore “Bathing Costumes” which consisted of a heavy woolen dress complete with stockings and shoes! A one piece bathing suit was considered “risqué” because it actually showed a woman’s legs, but Gertrude created a two piece garment by cutting up her favorite training suit and adjusting it to make it tighter so it wouldn’t chafe, and would not fill with water.
On her second attempt, she also slathered her body with grease to help protect against the cold and the jellyfish stings.
As she began her swim at Cape Gris Nez, France, a flotilla of boats followed her, including a tugboat which carried newspaper reporters, and a wireless set, to continually broadcast reports of her progress. This was at a time when newspapers were the major source of news and published several issues each day. As people realized that a 20-year-old American was actually going to make it, they flocked to the shoreline to welcome her. When she arrived at Kingsdown England, she became the first woman to complete the swim but had made it in fourteen and a half hours, two hours faster than the current record held by a man! No one would break her record until 1950!
Gertrude Ederle became an instant celebrity, and received another ticker tape parade when she arrived in New York attended by two million people! She was also invited to the White House, where President Calvin Coolidge called her “America’s Best Girl.”
One reason she isn’t better known today is because about this time Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart were at the forefront of the news, and people were more excited about flying than swimming.
I grew up in the town of Highlands and was on the planning board in 1975. The town owned a piece of land overlooking the ocean that was not usable as a building lot. It was overgrown with weeds and bushes and was a general eyesore. Teenagers used to go there to drink beer and smoke pot. Someone suggested we clear it out and turn it into a park, which we did. The local garden club donated a lot of manpower to plant flowers and shrubbery, and it became a beautiful asset to the town.
Then we had to decide what to name it. One of the councilmen said, “How about Gertrude Ederle Park?” and we made it so.
Miss Ederle was 69 years old at the time and she came down from her home in New York for the dedication. I remember her as a lovely well-spoken lady with a nice smile and dimples. We got to chatting about her swim, and she said the only thing she regretted was not patenting the two-piece bathing suit!
In memoriam: Gertrude Ederle, 1906-2003.
Photos: provided by Vinnie Mendes