Despite What Everybody Said

In 1926, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in a two-piece bathing suit and sheep grease.

She designed the bathing suit with her sister. It was intended to reduce resistance in the water.

The resistance outside the water, though, was harder to reduce. Skepticism that a woman could swim the 21-mile Channel between England and France was widespread. “Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” Ms. Ederle told The New York Times.

But despite what everybody said, Ms. Ederle, already an Olympic swimmer, trained. And trained. And trained some more. And on August 6, 1926, she arrived on the French side of the Channel.

She looked at a map with her trainer. She slathered up in sheep grease, gave a two-armed wave to the crowd on the beach. And a few minutes after 7 a.m., Ms. Ederle in her two-piece suit walked into the English Channel.

She wasn’t the first to take on the swim. That was Matthew Webb who did it in 21 hours and 45 minutes back in 1875.

She also wasn’t attempting it for the first time. She had tried to swim the Channel a year before, but was disqualified after being touched by an assistant who thought she was drowning. Ms. Ederle insisted she wasn’t drowning, just resting.

On August 6, 1926, though, Ms. Ederle didn’t rest much.

She swam the crawl through white caps and south-west winds, conditions that added 14 miles to her journey. She sang, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” to the rhythm of her stroke. Occasionally, she ate cold chicken and beef broth.

And despite the rough waters, despite the 14 mile detour, despite what everybody said, Ms. Ederle walked out of the English Channel and onto the shores of Kingsdown, England around 9:40 p.m. on August 6, 1926.

She was the first woman to swim the English Channel. And the first person to do it in 14 hours and 31 minutes.

Ms. Ederle chose her own two-piece suit to manage resistance in the water. And she chose her own response to manage resistance from everybody saying it couldn’t be done.

“Every time somebody said that,” Ms. Ederle said, “I wanted to prove it could be done.”

After all, what everybody says is not always right.

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