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Wednesday, Dec 24, 2003

GERTRUDE EDERLE: AMERICA'S BEST GIRL



This year marked the passing of Gertrude Ederle, an Olympic athlete and the first woman to swim the English Channel. A native New Yorker, she trained for her record-breaking swims in New York City's public pools and beaches, and later worked as a swimming teacher for hearing-impaired children. Flushing Meadows Corona Park's Ederle Amphitheater is named in her honor, and was dedicated on the fiftieth anniversary of her Channel swim. She died at the age of 98, on November 31, in a nursing home in Queens. Her death prompted Carrie Thomas, a former Parkie, to write a letter of reminiscence to Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe: "Ms. E. was our role model at the 59th Street Pool, where she trained. We as youngsters were impressed and still are," she wrote.

Thomas was not alone in her admiration. Ederle's Channel swim, which she completed on August 6, 1926, in 14 hours and 30 minutes, made her a national celebrity at age 21. Christened "America's Best Girl" by President Calvin Coolidge, she was the first female sports star to achieve fame and adulation on par with male sports figures of the time such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. Her celebrity brought her endorsements, Hollywood gigs, and weekly marriage proposals. It was an accomplishment that lasted a lifetime; even when her Channel record was broken in 1950, many considered Ederle's swim, made in rough weather that forced her to swim in a zig-zag motion, to be the true victory.

Ederle's 1926 swim was actually her second time crossing the English Channel. She completed her first swim in 1925 but was disqualified because her companions, (the people who rowed alongside her in a boat, to look after her), touched her during one of her resting periods, believing her unconscious. Determined to complete her second swim, she chose her father, sister, brother and trainer to accompany her. She also designed her own swimsuit and coated herself with vaseline and sheep's grease to protect herself from the cold and jellyfish. In addition to her Channel swims, Ederle competed in the 1924 Olympics, winning three medals, including a gold for her place on the 400-meter freestyle relay team. In the early twenties she set women's world and American freestyle records, and by 1925 she had held 29 amateur national and world records (her Channel swim barred her from further amateur competition.)

Ederle prepared for her competitive swims in the pools and rivers of New York City. She first learned to swim on the Jersey shore, where her father owned a summer cottage in the Highlands. At age 14, she won a 3.5 mile race from Manhattan Beach to Bergen Beach. Two years later, she broke seven world records at Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. Two years after that, she trained for her first Channel swim with a sixteen mile swim from the Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Ederle pursued her swimming career in spite of her doctor's orders, who warned her she would become deaf-a severe case of measles in her early childhood had left her with damaged eardrums. Even when her doctor's prediction proved true, she continued to swim for her entire life. Her disability eventually led her to teach swimming to children at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York.

Ederle never married and lived most of her life quietly in New York working at a variety of jobs. Her Channel swim proved to be her life's defining moment, and one that inspired an entire generation of female athletes.

QUOTATION FOR THE DAY

"'Bah,' said Scrooge. 'Humbug!'"

Charles Dickens
(1812-1870)

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