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Nearly a century before American swimmers like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and Caleb Dressel lit up our TV screens with their gold medal-worthy achievements, the United States had another swimming star – Gertrude Ederle, who became the first woman to swim the English Channel on August 6, 1926.
Nicknamed the "Queen of the Waves," Ederle's talent was recognized by the Women's Swimming Association (WSA), where she trained as a girl. She had already appeared in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, where she won a gold medal in the 4x 100m freestyle relay and bronze in the women's 100m freestyle and 400m freestyle. She was disappointed that she hadn't won gold in all three events.
Ederle was only 19 when she accomplished her historic English Channel swim on her second try. Even more remarkably, her time of 14 hours and 34 minutes was faster than the times clocked by the five male swimmers who had already made the crossing – by almost two hours. Her record would stand until 1950. Ederle wore a homemade two-piece bathing suit and motorcycle goggles sealed with paraffin. She coated herself with grease, braved jellyfish stings, face-battering sea conditions, and salt water that made her tongue swell up.
For a brief time, Ederle was a huge celebrity. She was feted with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan – the first woman accorded such an honor. Two million people came out to attend. She appeared in the film Swim Girl, Swim, met President Calvin Coolidge (who called her "America's Best Girl"), had a song and dance named after her, and later toured the vaudeville circuit.
The amazing story of the Queen of the Waves:
- During her swim, Ederle was accompanied by a boat containing her father and sister and a reporter for the New York Daily News, which had paid to get the scoop on Ederle's swim. The swim was such a hot news item that a group of reporters from rival papers tagged along in a second boat.
- The first person Ederle encountered upon reaching the beach in Kingsdown, England, was an immigration official who asked her for her passport.
- Ederle was never financially successful in vaudeville and suffered losses during the Great Depression. Tragically, she was bedridden for several years in the 1930s after a fall down the stairs in her apartment building, and she never swam competitively again.
- Due to a bout of measles, Ederle had lived with poor hearing since childhood. Her English Channel swim exacerbated the problem, and she was almost completely deaf by the 1940s. She later taught children to swim at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City. Ederle, who never married, died in 2003 at age 97.