Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

She was the First Woman to Swim Across the English Channel

Premiere: 7/8/2020 | 00:11:54 |

Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003) made history and rocketed to international stardom in 1926 when, at age 20, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel, then considered one of the toughest endurance tests in the world, beating the fastest man's existing record by nearly two hours, and challenging notions about women being “the weaker sex.”

About the Episode

Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003), at age 15, became the first woman to swim the length of New York Bay and, in 1924, won three medals at the Paris Olympics. The German American athlete rocketed to international stardom in 1926, at age 20, as the first woman to swim across the English Channel, a feat only five men had completed, then considered one of the toughest endurance tests in the world. Wearing a revolutionary two-piece bathing suit and goggles she designed herself, for 14½ hours, Ederle battled 21 miles of frigid water and treacherous tides, beating the fastest man’s existing record by nearly two hours — the first time in sporting history that a woman had completed an event in a faster time than a man. Dubbed “Queen of the Waves” and “America’s Best Girl,” her accomplishment helped to demonstrate that women could be great athletes and challenged conventional wisdom about women as “the weaker sex.” Ederle’s hearing, which had already been damaged by a childhood case of measles, severely worsened after swimming the English Channel and left her “stone deaf,” in her words. Unable to compete in swim meets, Ederle briefly toured the U.S. on the vaudeville circuit. Later in life, she taught swimming to deaf children in New York City.

Interviewees: historian Linda J. Borish, Associate Professor of History, Western Michigan University and Co-Author of Sports in American History: From Colonization to Globalization; two-time Olympic medalist Lia Neal, the first African American woman to swim in an Olympic final for the United States.


Gertrude Ederle's accomplishments were not only in the water, as an Olympic swimmer and the first woman to swim the English Channel, but she also had a huge impact on the American landscape.

1924, Paris, France. 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle competed for the U.S. women's swim team at the Summer Olympics.

When the modern Olympics were founded in 1896, those games featured no women competitors.

Then in 1900, you had five events for women: tennis, golf, croquet, equestrianism, and sailing.

1912 was the first time women were included in aquatic sports: swimming and diving.

She won the gold medal in the 4x100 relay freestyle, and also won two bronze medals.

'The Olympic races? I had to swim like hell... When we're in the water, we're not in this world.'. Gertrude Ederle was born in 1905 in New York City, to a German immigrant family that owned a butcher shop.

Her father taught her to swim in a river when she was nine by tying a rope around her waist.

When Gertrude Ederle got measles as a youngster, she had complications that led to her being hard of hearing, and swimming did not help the hearing issue.

'The doctors told me my hearing would get worse if I continued swimming, but I loved the water so much, I just couldn't stop.'. Ederle dropped out of school in her early teens to train as a swimmer year-round.

I think the family support was tremendous, especially from the father.

Most youngsters, if they dropped out of school, it was to work to help support the income of the families. Here she was, focusing singularly on swimming.

Society viewed women as the weaker sex, that they were biologically less able to have physical courage and withstand the rigors of competition.

Some male doctors even called them 'maternally-wounded women,' that too much physical effort might harm women's roles of childbearing.

So there was a real limit to what women were encouraged to do in the area of sport.

In 1918, Ederle joined a women's team and began to swim competitively.

The Women's Swimming Association was founded by Charlotte Epstein in 1917, and it's really one of the first athletic organizations founded by women to promote women's competitive sport. They had a male coach, Louis de Breda Handley, a former Olympian, who believed that women could and should swim. And this led to competitions, once the amateur athletic union allowed women to compete in the 1910s.

'To me, the sea is like a person - like a child that I've known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea, I talk to it.

I never feel alone when I'm out there.'. By the age of 20, Ederle had set 29 world records in women's freestyle, including a long distance race from New York to New Jersey.

Gertrude Ederle swam the 22 miles in 7 hours and 11 minutes.

And that record stood for over 80 years. So she was short distance, long distance, all around champion swimmer.

I can't think of anyone that would be able to do that right now.

That's very unique. I'm Lia Neal, and I'm a two-time Olympian. I joined a swim team when I was eight, and I've been swimming competitively since then.

The national team changes every year with who's the fastest in the country right now. At the Olympics in 2012, in London, I became the first African American woman to swim on a finals on the 400 free relay. And making the 2016 Olympics, I also became the first African American woman to make two Olympics in swimming.

I was just like tunnel vision, not really setting any limits on myself, constantly climbing the ladder.

In 1925, with sponsorships from the Women's Swimming Association, Ederle set her sights on the ultimate endurance test, to swim across the English Channel.

Men had been doing it, and five men had succeeded.

Women had tried, but no one had done it successfully.

'Five men have succeeded, why not a woman?

Surely in the athletic club we are near equal in endurance!'. We have to remember, women barely got the right to vote in 1920.

And so Ederle was trying to demonstrate physical emancipation.

But the risks involved were enormous.

You had the huge waves, the cold temperature, the jellyfish, and often the winds would come up and blow you off course.

So it was a huge physical endeavor that most thought men would barely survive, let alone a woman.

Ederle set off from a beach in France, determined to conquer the 21-mile swim.

'I'm all ready for it. Bring on your old channel.'. She used the freestyle and most swimmers had used the breaststroke.

And so this was unusual.

But she seemed to move through the water quite rapidly, and initially seemed to be doing well.

But a huge wave came up, and her coach, from the tugboat following, her said, 'Gertrude, you should get out.' He touched her, which was a violation.

And so the swim stopped and she was furious because she could have kept going, she thought.

'My motto is, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

I am going to attempt to swim the English Channel again next July.'. Ederle hired a new coach and spent a year training at least four hours a day.

She also designed her own goggles and a more aerodynamic swimsuit.

In the late 19th, early 20th century, women at beaches and in pools were told to cover up.

They needed to wear full-length skirts, often stockings or bloomers, and that limits mobility in the water. Ederle revolutionized swimming with her sporting costume.

On August 6th, 1926, at 7 am, Ederle set off from the coast of France a second time.

She slathered herself in grease to protect against the cold water and jellyfish stings.

'Don't let anybody take me out of the water unless I ask. Promise me, England or bust.'. Two tugboats kept pace - one carrying her family and fans, the other, reporters from a newspaper which sponsored the swim.

When she was getting some food, she would rest on her back.

She would have broth, sugar cubes, and chocolate.

The people on the boat began singing to her.

There was nothing that was going to stop her this time.

14 Hours and 39 minutes later, 20-year-old Gertrude Ederle arrived on the British shore.

She was not only the first woman to swim the English Channel, but she beat the existing men's record by two hours.

'I'll bet all the women in the world will celebrate tonight.

It's up with the women and down with the men.'. When Ederle came back, New York City gave her a huge ticker tape parade and there were over 2 million people who lined the streets and docks to be a part of this.

She had nicknames like 'Queen of the Waves' or 'The Grease Smeared-Venus.'

She was one of the first women to visit the White House, and President Calvin Coolidge, he referred her as 'America's Best Girl.'

There was a short film made about Ederle and there were songs devoted to her.

Ederle wiped out misconceptions about women being weak.

Even though most Americans didn't swim before, Ederle's sudden fame inspired more than 60,000 women in the U.S. to earn Red Cross swimming certificates in the 1920s.

She toured the country on the vaudeville circuit for two years, demonstrating her skills in a portable tank.

However, as a result of the overwhelming pressure of press attention, Ederle suffered what doctors then called a 'nervous breakdown.'

The Channel's swim had also significantly worsened her hearing.

She retired from the sport in 1928, at age 22.

'I finally got the shakes. I was just a bundle of nerves.

I had to quit and I was stone-deaf.'. In her fifties, Ederle taught swimming at a school for deaf children in New York City.

It's amazing that she, being faced with becoming deaf, ultimately served other generations and shared her gift.

There aren't very many women coaches.

So I think it's up to us pioneers to give back to our communities that are less privileged, to let them know that this is an option.

As long as you race your heart out and work hard enough for it, you'll get it.

Elderle died in 2003, at the age of 98, after being inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Gertrude Ederle is part of this long legacy of pioneers in sport, where women compete and succeed.

She certainly kicked down the doors for Olympic participation, by showing that women, given the opportunity, can break down barriers and achieve sometimes even more than men.

'When somebody tells me I cannot do something, that's when I do it. People said women couldn't swim the Channel, but I proved they could.'


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.