Meet Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel. Born in 1905 and raised in New York City by two German immigrants, Gertrude’s life was nothing extraordinary. Her incredible feats of achievement came later, when she fell in love with swimming: her father taught her how to swim in their cottage in New Jersey, and by 1925 Gertrude held 29 records in her name. Despite her unparalleled athletic potential, Gertrude’s swimming career was muddled with limitations. As a woman, Gertrude was fighting the impossible fight; it was only in 1919 that female swimmers were allowed in the pool without their stockings (“as long as they quickly put on a robe once they got out of the water,” according to Gertrude’s biography America’s Girl). Gertrude persevered against the tides, going on to win one gold and two bronze medals at the Paris Olympics in 1924.
Even after all of this achievement, Gertrude had her sights set on the unprecedented: she wanted to swim across the English Channel, and she wanted to level the playing field against her male swimmer counterparts of the time. In August of 1925, Gertrude Ederle made her first attempt at crossing the English Channel. Gertrude’s swim was going well until her trainer ordered her rescue, claiming he thought she was drowning and required assistance. Later, Gertrude bitterly opposed his decision and chose a new trainer to attempt the English Channel a second time in 1926.
This time, Gertrude came fully prepared: equipped with a revolutionary “two-piece” that she fashioned herself to help mitigate the tides, a coat of lanolin to protect herself from jellyfish and chilling temperatures, and motorcycle goggles, Gertrude swam away from the shores of France determined to make history. Five men successfully swam across the English Channel before Gertrude came along, the fastest time hovering around sixteen and a half hours. Gertrude dragged herself to shore in Kingstown, England only fourteen hours and thirty-four minutes after she set out. She crushed history with the grace and resolve of a monarch, earning her nickname “Queen of the Waves.”
Gertrude swam against the current, against gender normalities of the 1920s, and against every person in Europe and America who gawked at her strength and capability in the face of nature. Her swim inspired four women to swim the English Channel directly after her, ultimately inspiring a movement of gender-equality and strength in the water.
Gertrude completed the swim in 14 hours and 31 minutes, but her legacy still lingers almost 100 years later. Her bravery and resiliency makes us wonder, what tide are we swimming against? Where is our courage being employed? For some, it’s just a swimsuit, but for Gertrude Ederle it was the difference between failure and shattering the glass ceiling. The lessons from her story are countless, but we’re focusing on her strength, tenacity, and refusal to admit defeat. And Gertrude proves what we suspected all along — at the end of the day, maybe all you really need to succeed is the right swimsuit.