Sunday, March 14, 2021

Gertrude Ederle vs. the Channel

W. O. McGeehan (1879–1933)
From The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns

Gertrude Ederle (center) with fellow Olympic medalists Aileen Riggin and Helen Wainwright on board the Berengaria on June 2, 1926, when she left New York for her second attempt to swim the English Channel. Prior to Ederle's departure, the three women staged swimming-and-diving shows for several weeks at the New York Hippodrome; when she returned, they took the show on the road for six months with a portable glass water tank. Bain News Service / Library of Congress.
During the 1920s, while most of his colleagues were writing about boxing, football, and baseball, W. O. McGeehan devoted many of his columns and several long-form articles to women’s sports, particularly tennis and swimming. His brand-name associates at the New York Herald Tribune, Grantland Rice and Heywood Broun, as well as such writers as Damon Runyon at the Hearst syndicate and Paul Gallico at the Daily News, were piling on adjectives and adverbs to turn male athletes like home run king Babe Ruth and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey into heroic figures. McGeehan would have none of it. “Those who look for idols among the athletes are starting to look to the women and the amateurs rather than to the men and to the professionals,” he wrote in January 1926. He was “a professional skeptic with no time for hustlers or dullards," writes John Schulian in the anthology The Great American Sports Page. “If McGeehan had walked into a sports department fifty years later, he would have been a perfect fit.”

For the July 1925 issue of Everybody’s Magazine, McGeehan wrote “A School for Swimming Stars,” a 5,000-word essay on the Women’s Swimming Association in New York. Fresh off their victories at the 1924 Summer Olympics, the members of the organization were in the middle of preparing for its next challenge: sponsoring one of the members in her quest to become the first woman to swim across the English Channel. The article profiled Helen Wainwright, who was in training for the achievement, and mentioned in passing Gertrude Ederle, designated as the back-up candidate. McGeehan concluded his enthusiastic portrait with a little hero worship of his own: “When the bobbed head of Miss Helen Wainwright rises above the surge of the English Channel as she breasts her courageous way from Dover to Calais, you will have the new woman, the modern American girl glorified as no Ziegfeld could glorify her with chiffons and cosmetics.”

By the time the article appeared, however, Wainwright had pulled out of the event because of an injury and Ederle had stepped into the lead role. For the next year, McGeehan wrote numerous columns about Ederle, often comparing her favorably to the men exalted by his fellow writers. His first salvo appeared on June 17 under the title “What Is Sport?” and described how the nineteen-year-old swam from the Battery in Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, “in 7 hours, 11 minutes, breaking a record that had been held previously by a man.” (The record stood for more than 80 years.) “That was merely a training stunt,” he added pointedly. “The workout of Miss Gertrude Ederle is a twenty-one-mile battle with the tides. It takes place very unostentatiously. There are few correspondents. There seems to be some doubt as to whether this sort of thing comes under the head of sports.” Contrasting Ederle’s preparation with the well-attended, pampered training sessions of major sports figures, McGeehan wrote, “Neither Mr. Dempsey nor Mr. Ruth ever in all their more or less athletic lives underwent seven hours of sustained physical effort. I do not believe either of them could.”

He took up this theme repeatedly in the weeks ahead. In “The Weaker Sex,” published on August 7, he complained, “It seems hard to work up much enthusiasm among my brethren here concerning the women swimmers of the Channel.” One writer at The New York World, the versifying satirist James J. Montague, privately questioned the real merit of traveling the ocean by such “primitive means” when “one can take a boat across the Channel or one may fly over from Dover to Calais much more easily.” McGeehan used his column to expose the essential ridiculousness of Montague’s remarks, throwing in for good measure a reference to the public scandal surrounding Dempsey’s wartime experience: “The work of Mr. Dempsey is to lay one of his fellow men horizontal and with the most primitive of weapons. . . . Private Spejack, who did not evade the draft and who did not work in the shipyards during the World War, could drop Mr. Dempsey at 200 yards and leave him permanently horizontal with a regulation Springfield rifle.”

Ederle’s first attempt across the Channel, in August 1925, ended with an unfortunate and controversial incident; six miles from the English shore, after swimming 23 miles in under nine hours, she seemed to weaken as the sea became rough. Swamped by a wave, she vomited up some sea water and her training coach, who later insisted he thought she was either unconscious or nearly so, ordered another swimmer to take her out. Ederle was disqualified the moment her “rescuer” touched her. “I don’t know if I could have gone across but I could have gone further,” she told reporters upon her return to New York. “It seemed certain that she would be the first woman to complete the Channel swim,” McGeehan wrote, contrasting the attention and remuneration for her nine-hour “fight” in the sea with the audiences and purses enjoyed by both the winner and the loser of a typical boxing championship.

Convinced of Ederle’s inevitable success, McGeehan continued to elevate her quest in the pages of the Herald Tribune. Five weeks before her second attempt in August 1926, he published “Gertrude Ederle vs. the Channel,” which we reprint below in its entirety. In the intervening year, the media coverage of the heartbreaking end of Ederle’s first attempt and the increase in reporting by McGeehan and others captured the attention of the American public. One can imagine McGeehan’s disappointment when the Daily News agreed to sponsor the event, giving the competitor’s sportswriters exclusive coverage from the tugboat that trailed Ederle across the Channel and relegating other journalists to a second boat.

On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle walked out of the surf and onto the beach at Kingsdown, England, to become the sixth person—and first woman—to swim across the Channel. The best time among the five men who preceded her had been 16 hours, 33 minutes; the longest, 26 hours, 34 minutes. Ederle established a new record at 14 hours, 34 minutes. Moreover, because the seas were so rough that day, she swam at least 35 miles to complete the 21-mile trip. McGeehan was ecstatic. “She had beaten the Channel and beaten it as no man had beaten it.” Noting that gamblers at Lloyds of London had bet against her 50 to 1, he concluded, “After this the odds against women in any line of endeavor will shorten.”

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Gertrude Ederle vs. the Channel

The setting for the greatest sports story of the year, to my mind, will be the twenty-two miles of sullen gray Channel water between Cape Gris-Nez and Dover early in August, when Gertrude Ederle makes her second attempt to conquer the elements that beat her last year. Only five men out of the hundreds who have tried have made it and not a single woman.

This is more than a great melodramatic sporting event. The Ederle family is installed at the Hotel of the Lighthouse talking it over and Pa Ederle is planning his celebration in the event of his daughter’s victory. And Gertrude said na├»vely, “And I’ll bet all the women in the world will celebrate that night.” That is the keynote of the interest. Swimming the Channel is a supreme test of courage and endurance, requiring a physique which makes victory possible. And a victory for Gertrude Ederle will be one of the greatest feminist stories, as well as one which will appeal to the dullest imagination.

In Paris the gamblers are willing to give heavy odds on the Channel against the young champion of her sex, a girl who is to make the attempt to demonstrate that the members of her sex can possess virtues held previously exclusively by the masculine. She is trying for the second time a feat that only the hardiest and most exceptionally equipped male swimmers have succeeded in accomplishing.

Standing beside Miss Ederle as she sat on one of the rocks near the lighthouse and looked across the gray, sullen water, I’d be inclined to back this girl against the Channel. If there is one woman who can make the swim, it is this girl, with the shoulders and back of Jack Dempsey and the frankest and bravest pair of eyes that ever looked into a face. It is improbable, but not impossible.

At first Miss Ederle gives the impression of being dull, because she is slightly deaf through an injury to her eardrums from swimming and because, like all swimmers, she is a mouth breather. But she is far from dull. She has a sense of humor. She told me of her last attempt, when she swam for an hour on instinct alone, blinded, deaf, and only half conscious. She remembered only the humor of the trip.

She told of the correspondents boarding the tug at Cape Gris-Nez airily waving at her and saying, “See you in Dover.” Then she told in words and pantomime how they crawled off on the English side, wan and seasick, and how one of them said, “This is the last time I make any Channel swims.” She threw back her bobbed head and laughed with the heartiness of a big boy.

“This time,” she said, “I am preparing myself to stay eighteen hours in the water. The last time I was trying for a record. When I start again it will be with the idea of reaching the other side, and I will not quit until I cannot move.”

As she spoke she peered through the chill mists that hid the outlines of the English coast. Below, the Channel was growling as it lashed against the rocks with a constant menace. Behind her was standing the north coast of France.

“All I am going to get for this is a roadster. Pa promised me one if I make the swim this time. So I’ll be seeing nothing but that roadster on the boat while I am making the swim.” A little while later she was cuddling a little baby rabbit, which she had picked up in the fields, against her brown cheek. A strange mixture is this girl, with the simplicity of Shaw’s Joan of Arc and the physique and many attributes of a male giant. To picture what eighteen hours in the Channel might seem you must stand with her on the rocks at Cape Gris-Nez.

Consider the ancestry of this young Amazon. Her grandmother was the mother of twenty-one children and she is still alive and active in Stuttgart, on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. When this swim is over Gertrude is going to visit her. The swimmer herself is one of a family of twelve—one of the old-fashioned German-American families.

Her training quarters are rougher than those of any prize fighter I have ever visited. In fact, the manager of one of these delicate male athletes would seize his fighter and flee at first sight of the Hotel of the Lighthouse, with beds that sag in the middle and running water that never runs. The diet she eats would shock a trainer. It is the diet of a stenographer mixed with pickles. Yet I have heard third-rate prize fighters complaining that they didn’t get their proper nourishment even when they had their own chefs.

The loneliness would make even an unimaginative prize fighter mad in a few weeks. But this girl keeps her even temper and her sunny good humor, living day by day with a battlefield by her side. This time she is under the charge of the gray-haired William Burgess, who swam the Channel years ago, and a man who has spent his life studying its changes and its cruel moods. The present plan is to have Gertrude Ederle start from the point on the French coast where he finished and have the light of Cape Gris-Nez guide her through the long, weary miles of darkness and silence, broken only by the growl of the waters.

She was at the door of the lighthouse when I left her with her toy phonograph playing a jazz tune. She held out one of the strong brown hands that will beat against the waters of the Channel and said with that boyish smile, “Good-by, good luck.”

I felt that I would sooner be in that tug the day she starts than at the ringside of the greatest fight or at the arena of the greatest game in the world, for this, in my opinion, is to be the greatest sports story in the world.

Originally published in the June 28, 1926, issue of the New York Herald Tribune and reprinted in Wake Up the Echoes: From the Sports Pages of the New York Herald Tribune (1956).