August 6, 1926 – Gertrude Ederle Becomes First Woman to Swim the English Channel

Gertrude Ederle, born on October 23, 1905, became the first woman to swim the English Channel, when she was 19 years old. She crossed the waterway in 14 hours and 31 minutes. According to the New York Times, if Ederle had been able to swim in a straight line, it would have been a 21-mile trip. But the sea was so rough, she swam no less than 35 miles. Per the NYT, Ederle always held that her record was never broken, even though in 1950, another American, Florence Chadwick, swam the Channel in 13 hours 20 minutes. That was in a relatively calm sea, Ederle said, so it was not a fair comparison.

Nineteen-year-old Gertrude Ederle on Aug. 6, 1926, as she crosses the English Channel, per Associated Press photo

Several innovations contributed to her success. One was the evolution of the bathing suit for women, as they became more streamlined and lighter. Ederle took it even further, designing a two-piece bathing suit that would not drag in the water but that would be considered “decent.”

From a history of women’s swimwear via All That’s Interesting

Another was the development of the American crawl, a variation of the Australian crawl, which Ederle used. She also refashioned a set of motorcycle goggles for herself to protect her eyes from salty water. A very interesting history of goggles notes that the introduction of goggles to copetitive swimming is regarded as one of the greatest transformation technological advances of the sport.

Via History of Googles website cited above

Ederle had already broke a number of women’s swimming records in the early 1920s. As a member of the US Olympic team in Paris, she won gold and bronze, swimming with an injured knee.

Ederle first tried to swim the Channel in 1925. But after she swam 23 miles in 8 hours 43 minutes, the people in a boat who were supposed to look after her thought she might be unconscious in the water. Somebody yelled, ”She’s drowning!” and they touched her, which immediately disqualified her.

Thus she had to try again, which she did successfully on this day in history, smeared in sheep grease. The New York Times reported:

In the boat that moved with her, the crew occasionally held up signs, which said things like ‘’one wheel,’ ‘two wheels,’ enumerating parts of a car, because she had been promised a red roadster if she was successful.

She eventually achieved a lifetime record of twenty-nine U.S. and world swimming records.

Ederle was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer” in 1965. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003.

Ederle died in December, 2003 at the age of 98 in a nursing home in Wyckoff, N.J. She was 98.

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