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Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Ederle Amphitheater

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This amphitheater honors Gertrude Ederle, an Olympic swimmer, who began her career in the cold waters off the coast of Brooklyn, and set world’s records at the age of 12.

Gertrude Ederle was born in New York City on October 23, 1906, to successful German immigrant parents. After getting off to a rather discouraging start when she nearly drowned in her grandmother’s pool, Ederle’s determination, a personality trait that would serve her well later in life, resulted in her setting the record time for the 800-yard freestyle by the age of 12. Ederle dropped out of high school at 14 and that same year won a 3 1/2-mile race from Manhattan Beach to Bergen Beach against 51 other women. At the age of 17, Ederle won two bronze medals for the 100 and 400-meter freestyle races and a gold medal as part of the Women’s 400-meter relay in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France.

In August of 1925, Ederle unsuccessfully tried to swim the English Channel, a feat that had only been accomplished by five men. She returned to America determined to swim the Channel, and made an agreement with the Chicago Tribune, who would sponsor her second attempt, despite the fact that any such deal would exempt her from further Olympic competition. At the age of 19, Ederle left Cape Gris-Nez, France at 7:08 a.m. coated in lanolin, petroleum jelly, and olive oil for protection against jellyfish and the cold. By mid-afternoon the weather had turned stormy and the Channel was closed to traffic. London bookies had odds of 6 to 1 against a successful swim of the channel. Ederle persisted, with her father, sister, and new trainer following in a tugboat. Though the cold water damaged her hearing, Ederle reached the shores of Kingsdown, England, in a record time of just over fourteen hours.

Ederle returned to America a star and performed as a vaudeville swimmer, appeared in films, and gave lectures encouraging women’s participation in sports. In 1933, when Ederle fell and injured her spine, several doctors told her she would not walk or swim again, and Ederle spent many years recovering. After learning of Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, Ederle trained intensively and overcame her injuries to perform in the aquacade, which took place in the amphitheater at the northern tip of Meadow Lake. The pool, 200 feet by 70 feet, showcased actress-swimmer Eleanor Holme and Olympic swimmer and “Tarzan” actor Johnny Weissmuller.

Ederle worked for American Export Airlines at LaGuardia Airport during World War II (1939-1945), and after the war she give swimming lessons to deaf children. Ederle was inducted to the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1975 a park in the Highlands, New Jersey, was dedicated to Ederle, and the New York Common Council sponsored a bill to rename the amphitheater for her on the 50th anniversary of her Channel swim. Gertrude Ederle is now living in Wyckoff, New Jersey.

After the 1939-40 World’s Fair the amphitheater was opened to the public. During the 1964-65 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the Roman-style amphitheater was home to the state of Florida Pavilion, which featured a water-ski extravaganza. After years of neglect, in 1996 the amphitheater was torn down. The site of the old amphitheater will be home to a new Olympic-sized pool. The edge of Meadow Lake will have restored greenery, and Parks is preserving several artifacts from the previous amphitheater. Mayor Giuliani, Borough President Claire Shulman, and Council Member Morton Povman are funding this major $33 million project.

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