The First Woman (Part I)

Monday 06/21/10

Depending on the historical source, Henry Ederle had nineteen or twenty-one brothers and sisters in Bissingen, Germany. Seeking more opportunity in 1892, he immigrated to New York City at the age of sixteen and found work as a delivery boy in a small butcher shop on the Upper West Side. He certainly embodied the classic immigrant success story. Twenty-two years later, he owned a thriving butcher shop of his own, dabbled in investments, and kept a summer cottage in the Highlands in New Jersey. It was here, at a pier in Sandy Hook Bay, that Mr. Ederle taught his three children to swim.

In 1915, most swim instruction was exceptionally primitive. Mr. Ederle’s innovation was to apply his skills learned wrapping meat at the butcher counter to create a harness out of cotton clothesline. Trussing his youngest daughter, Gertrude, he strolled onto the Patten Line Pier near their home in the Highlands and spooled out the line below. Snugging up the rope, he encouraged “Trudy” to enter the water from the beach. The clothesline acted like training wheels on a bicycle. Within minutes, Trudy was performing a vigorous, thrashing dog paddle without assistance from her dad. She was in heaven. As reported by Glenn Stout in Young Woman and the Sea, she would later say, “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.”

Perhaps part of her affinity for being immersed in the water sprang from her diminished hearing. When she was five years old, an attack of measles left her with an ear infection and hearing loss. In noisy settings with a gabble of conversations, she became confused and distracted. Although she was outgoing and lively with her family and friends, around strangers she appeared shy. She regularly retreated to her private world through swimming and reading—spending hours in the open water at the Highlands or burying herself in dime novels of the day.

In one of several fortunate coincidences, 1917 was the year that Charlotte Epstein created the Women’s Swimming Association in New York City. Trudy’s mother, Gertrud (spelled without the trailing “e”), immediately recognized the opportunity and signed up all three of her daughters. Ms. Epstein had cleverly positioned the WSA as an ancillary and subservient arm of the Amateur Athletic Union. According to Tim Dahlberg in America’s Girl, “Epstein got the AAU not only to accept women’s swimming as a sport but to allow swimmers to wear suits they could compete in.... American women would compete in swimming in the 1920 Olympics for the first time, and they would do it mostly in the black silk racing suits of the WSA.”

In another fortunate coincidence, Louis de Breda Handley was the swim coach for the WSA. An Italian immigrant and champion swimmer in his own right, Mr. Handley co-invented the “American crawl” stroke. Known today simply as “freestyle,” this is the stroke he taught to swimmers at the WSA. Far superior to the popular “trudgen” and “Australian crawl” strokes, the WSA competitors used the American crawl to dominate the 1920 Olympic swimming trials and then the Olympic swim events themselves.

Practicing three times a week at the WSA pool in the winter, Trudy Ederle was mastering the new crawl stroke but showing little interest in competition. It was her sister, Margaret, who registered her for a three-and-a-half mile open water swim from Manhattan Beach to Brighton Beach in 1922. Organized by Joseph P. Day, the swim featured the WSA Olympic swimming stars as well as Hilda James of England. The Liverpool native carried the reputation as Europe’s greatest woman swimmer. The stellar quality of the competition made no impression on Trudy Ederle. Now sixteen years old and perfectly content in open water given her Highlands experience, she finished nearly a minute ahead of her closest competitor and burst upon the swiming scene. With her youth and unforced charm and modesty, she quickly became the new face of the WSA.

By 1924, Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller were the stars of the U.S. Olympic swim team. Although she won three medals, Ms. Ederle’s performance along with the rest of the women’s contingent suffered from mismanagement of the team logistics in Paris. She nevertheless returned to great acclamation, but any thrill she had ever mustered for pool competition waned dramatically.

Charlotte Epstein of the WSA had new plans, though. Given the lull between Olympic years, she saw an opportunity in the English Channel to keep the WSA in the newspaper headlines and attract donors. No woman had yet swum the Channel and she convinced the WSA board to authorize a $5,000 budget for the project.  They assigned Ms. Epstein to make all the arrangements and accompany the swimmer in the attempt.

Fifty years after Matthew Webb swam the English Channel, only four other men had replicated his feat. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Dover Express, considered the doyen of Channel swimming at the time, estimated that the number of attempts since 1875 exceeded 1,000. Jabez Wolffe single-handedly contributed at least twenty-two and maybe as many as forty failed attempts to this number without a single success.

In 1911, Bill Burgess finally became the second man to swim the English Channel after several failed attempts of his own. It took him almost an hour longer than Captain Webb. Shortly after Mr. Burgess’ success, the Great War threw a wrench into the works of further efforts for several years. After the war; after the mines were cleared; and after the world economy finally began to rebound, 1923 represented a break-through year for Channel crossings. Three men more than doubled the ranks of successful swimmers. One of them, Enrico Tiraboschi, finally bettered Matthew Webb’s time by more than four hours with a time of sixteen hours and thirty-three minutes. He set the new mark swimming from France to England for the first time, a route widely deemed to be much easier than starting in Dover given the more favourable landing conditions.

Charlotte Epstein and Louis Handley believed that they had a swimmer who could not only become the first woman. They believed that she could best the time of Mr. Tiraboschi by as much as two hours. They believed this woman was Helen Wainwright. Biographer Glenn Stout muses that, “this was a measure of just how far Trudy’s star had fallen, for Wainwright, despite all her talent, didn’t have nearly as much experience as Trudy in open water.”

Fate intervened when Ms. Wainwright slipped while exiting a trolley and tore a muscle in her thigh. Once again, Margaret Ederle immediately began a campaign to convince her younger sister to take up the challenge. Trudy Ederle was the obvious choice to the press and the coaches to provide a backup. The WSA board authorized additional funds to take two swimmers.

While making the arrangements, Ms. Epstein had the choice between two well-credentialed coaches for the endeavour. Jabez Wolffe was based in England and could certainly boast vast, if unsuccessful, experience. Bill Burgess, the other obvious choice given his success in 1911, was based in France. Ms. Epstein believed that the best course of action was to train in England and then attempt the crossing from France. She went with Mr. Wolffe.

Before leaving for England, Ms. Wainwright slipped again and reinjured her thigh leaving Trudy Ederle to travel alone with her chaperone, Elsie Viets. Louis Handley had carefully structured Ms. Ederle’s training agenda both in America and during her preparation in England. With the help of Margaret Ederle, he had convinced the young woman that she was prepared to succeed and filled her with confidence. This set the stage for a dramatic showdown with the cantankerous Mr. Wolffe.

Although he was Jewish, Jabez Wolffe had the strict, thundering style of his fellow Scot, the pinched and decidedly protestant John Knox. Mr. Wolffe continually berated his young charge and constantly drilled her on the dangers of the English Channel. He even introduced the notion of man-eating sharks. He berated her stroke and recommended the breast stroke. He lambasted her stroke rate of twenty-eight per minute and suggested eighteen or twenty as more suitable for the Channel distance. He tried to interfere with the training schedule Louis Handley had given her. He condemned her effort to teach herself the ukulele outside of training hours as fatuous. He insisted that Ms. Ederle accept deep, vigorous massages to “harden” the muscles and make them immune to fatigue.

With the backing of Ms. Viets, the aspiring Channel swimmer resisted all of these entreaties with the possible exception of being frightened about the potential for sharks. According to Glenn Stout, “to Trudy, Wolffe was ‘all wet.’ … Although Trudy was generally shy, when it came to swimming she knew her stuff and wasn’t afraid to express her opinion.” By the time they moved camp across the Channel to Boulogne, France, the battle lines were deeply drawn.

On August 17, 1925, Ms. Ederle began her attempt from a rocky outcrop at Cap Gris Nez. During the crossing, she and Mr. Wolffe continued to spar. He continually chided her for swimming too fast and insisted that she stop every thirty minutes for chocolate and beef tea. Tim Dahlberg in America’s Girl says, “Trudy would later talk about her distrust of the beef broth and Wolffe’s insistence that she drink it. It gave her a warm, burning sensation, which made her think it might be wine or liquor. Wolffe would tell her it was just juices of genuine beef, but this butcher’s daughter knew what beef and its broth tasted like, and it tasted nothing like this.” Many experts at the time believed that doses of whiskey or brandy helped to warm the blood and stem the effects of cold water. However, Ms. Ederle simply didn’t like alcoholic beverages of any kind and firmly refused Mr. Wolffe’s efforts to get her to imbibe during training. Some historians even allude to the possible addition of opiates or barbiturates.

In any case, Ms. Ederle swam swiftly for close to nine hours to get within six and a half miles of the English coast. Then, in a moment that remains controversial, Jabez Wolffe ordered Ishaq Helvi to “grab her” or some command to that effect. Mr. Helvi was a large, gregarious Egyptian who had become friends with Ms. Ederle during her stay in France. He was a Channel aspirant himself with multiple attempts under his belt. He was in the water acting as a pacer at the time and once he touched Ms. Ederle, the swim was over—her attempt a failure. Although she returned to America a celebrity, the Channel remained unconquered by a woman that year.

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