DIED Of natural causes, Gertrude Ederle, 97, who in 1926 became
the first woman to swim the English Channel. Upon her return to
New York City, the 19-year-old daughter of a Bronx butcher
received a ticker-tape parade that was attended by two million
people. President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed her "America's best
girl," and a song, Trudy, was written in her honor.
Ederle learned to swim on the New Jersey shore, near her parents'
summer cottage, and went on to win gold in the 4x100-meter
freestyle relay at the 1924 Olympics. Still, London bookies were
offering 5-to-1 odds against her making it across when, on the
morning of Aug. 6, she covered herself with lanolin and sheep
grease, put on her bathing suit and entered the Channel at Cape
Gris-Nez. She set her stroke rhythm to Let Me Call You
Sweetheart, a waltz her sister played on a Victrola aboard the
tug that accompanied her. "When I looked up at the support boat
and saw the American flag flying, tattered by the wind, I'd just
dig a little deeper," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1984.
Fourteen hours and 31 minutes after she set out--nearly two hours
faster than any of the five men who had swum the Channel--she
reached Kingsdown, England, where bonfires and thousands of fans
awaited. Ederle went on to tour on the vaudeville circuit,
swimming on stage in a giant tank. But she lost her hearing,
which had been deteriorating since a bout of childhood measles,
in 1930 and retreated from the spotlight, teaching swimming to
deaf children in New York City, where she lived until moving to a
New Jersey nursing home. She never married. "Everybody [said] it
couldn't be done," she said in 2001. "Every time somebody said
that, I wanted to prove it could be."