Elevate Difference

Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World

From 1922 through 1925, Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle was widely considered to be the best female swimmer in the world, and had no trouble competing, and winning, against men either. In 1926, at the age of nineteen, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel, shattering the previous record by two full hours.

Young Woman and the Sea is the story of Trudy Ederle told by sportswriter Glenn Stout, but it is more than a biography. Using interspersed chapters, Stout gives readers lessons on the history of swimming, the English Channel, and those who came before Ederle in women’s swimming and in the swimming of the Channel. The main focus of the book is Ederle, but it is also the story of those who helped make it possible for her to succeed so greatly.

In the early 1900s, women weren’t taught, or often allowed, to swim. It wasn’t seen as proper and few thought that women were physically capable of even doing it. The Women’s Swimming Association, founded in 1917, had a mission to change that view. Part of that mission was recruiting young girls to train, and, in 1918, Ederle became one of them. Ederle in particular challenged the psychological and scientific reasoning that women were not, nor could ever be, as strong as men.

Ederle’s first attempt at the English Channel was in 1925, but a sexist coach—who is rumored to have poisoned her—sabotaged her efforts both mentally and physically. One year later, under the guidance of a new coach, Ederle swam the Channel better than anyone before her, making the phrase “weaker sex” sound old fashioned.

After Ederle, more women crossed the Channel, one within days of her successful attempt, and more women’s sports, which had seemed so controversial before, were added to the Olympics. More women also began to turn professional, reaping the same financial benefits as professional male athletes, thanks to a change in attitudes toward female athletes.

Ederle was a celebrity at a time when few knew what that term meant. However, soon after her historical swim, she slipped into obscurity almost as easily as her fame began. One of the reasons Stout gives for her being so quickly forgotten was that the changes she inspired became so pervasive so quickly.

The story of Trudy Ederle is important and should be told often. It would be wonderful as a young adult or children’s book because of its inspirational messages of equality and perseverance. Ederle’s reasoning behind swimming the Channel may have had more to do with personal goals than gender equality, but she sure helped things along. Young Woman and the Sea is a charming read and an important reminder of how thankful women today should be for women like Ederle who have come before them.

Written by: Jill Hindenach, July 28th 2009

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