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

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In 1926, before skirt lengths inched above the knee and before anyone was ready to accept that a woman could test herself physically, a plucky American teenager named Trudy Ederle captured the imagination of the world when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. It was, and still is, a feat more incredible and uncommon than scaling Mount Everest. Upon her return to the United States, "Trudy of America" became the most famous ...

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

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Overview

In 1926, before skirt lengths inched above the knee and before anyone was ready to accept that a woman could test herself physically, a plucky American teenager named Trudy Ederle captured the imagination of the world when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. It was, and still is, a feat more incredible and uncommon than scaling Mount Everest. Upon her return to the United States, "Trudy of America" became the most famous woman in the world. And just as quickly, she disappeared from the public eye.
 
Set against the backdrop of the roaring 1920s, Young Woman and the Sea is the dramatic and inspiring story of Ederle’s pursuit of a goal no one believed possible, and the price she paid. The moment Trudy set foot on land, triumphant, she had shattered centuries of stereotypes and opened doors for generations of women to come. A truly magnetic and often misunderstood character whose story is largely forgotten, Trudy Ederle comes alive in these pages through Glenn Stout’s exhaustive new research.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Young Woman and the Sea is the story of Gertrude Ederle’s epic swim across the English Channel interwoven with a sweeping and glimmering history of swimming.  These were the good old days when open water swimmers were sex symbols, pioneers of the sport, and leaders of social change.  For anyone who loves the water, or has a big dream – this is the book to read!"
Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson

"Too often, looking at America through its sports, and vice versa, results in a distorted view of both of them. In Glenn Stout's account of Trudy Ederle and the English Channel, we have a clear and honest mirror. Young Woman and the Sea is a first-rate piece of social history, and a tale told, well, swimmingly." 
Charles P. Pierce, author of Idiot America and Moving the Chains 

Publishers Weekly

In 1926, 18-year-old Trudy Ederle fascinated and inspired millions around the world when she became the first woman successfully to swim the English Channel. With great storytelling, sportswriter Stout (series editor of The Best American Sports Writing) chronicles Ederle's singular accomplishment and its significance for the future of women in sports as well as the tremendous challenges for any swimmer who would dare traverse the waves of the channel. At age five, Ederle (1908-2003) suffered permanent hearing loss, which made her reticent and shy; at age 10 her father taught her to swim. The ocean opened to her like another world, and she loved the feeling of floating and swimming in its vastness. After lessons at the Women's Swimming Association, Ederle developed her gift and emerged as one of America's fastest swimmers, earning a spot in the 1924 Olympics. Disappointed by winning only a bronze medal, she quickly turned to the challenge of swimming the English Channel-difficult due to its strong tides, winds and currents-and after an initial failure, Ederle conquered the channel on August 6, 1926. Stout's moving book recovers the exhilarating story of a young girl who found her true self out in the water and paved the way for women in sports today. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Trudy Ederle, who died in 2003 at age 98, was the first woman to swim the English Channel, in 1926. For several years, her fame had been uproarious, her achievement thought earth-shattering. She enjoyed New York's biggest ticker tape parade, had her own swimsuit line, and had Americans rethinking women's athletic capabilities. After a semisuccessful vaudeville tour, her career declined; she turned to giving children swimming lessons and, later, selling dresses in a shop. Although the shy and hard-of-hearing Ederle failed to cash in on her fame, she felt satisfied with her career and resented those who deemed her ultimate anonymity a tragedy. These two biographies help readers understand the age of "ballyhoo" and "wonderful nonsense," as Stout cites sportswriter Westbrook Pegler referring to the Twenties. Sportswriter Dahlberg (Fight Town: Las Vegas-the Boxing Capital of the World) had access to Ederle's diary and unpublished memoir, but both writers were able to re-create vividly the dramatic events, largely from published reporting and interviews. The writers emphasize different aspects of the story: Dahlberg discusses topics like the revolution in women's swimsuits and the German American community and devotes nearly half his book to Ederle's post-swim life and career. Stout, who has edited The Best American Sports Writing annually, delves into the history of U.S. swimming, how geology shaped the fearsome tides and currents in the channel, and Ederle's failed first attempt. Still, they both employ the same approach: a popular social history that brings to life a woman, her era, and her remarkable feat. Both books make for very entertaining reading, with Stout's given aslight edge for more picturesque writing. Although neither book uses rigorous scholarly footnoting, either is recommended for all scholarly as well as public libraries. (Dahlberg photos not seen.)
—Kathy Ruffle

Kirkus Reviews
The Best American Sports Writing series editor offers a history of the first woman to swim the English Channel. In the era of Michael Phelps, it's easy to forget that 100 years ago the sport of swimming was essentially nonexistent. Considered a necessary skill in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, swimming eventually became a sport of the elite. Everything changed, however, in the early 1900s when a fatal fire broke out on a steamship in New York Harbor, leaving more than 1,000 people dead as they jumped overboard and drowned in shallow waters. Almost immediately, swimming societies began to spring up across the country to quell the palpable public outrage. Among those newly enrolled in lessons was Gertrude Ederle, a young woman who sought solace in the water to counter the progressive deafness brought on by an early bout of measles. Ederle became dominant in the newly emerging sport, equally at ease swimming sprints or long distances. After winning one gold and two bronze medals in a disappointing 1924 Olympic showing, she turned her efforts to crossing the English Channel. Stout (The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball, 2004, etc.) adeptly traces the history of swimming and Ederle's significance in it. Whether recounting the origins of modern strokes or the geological formation of the English Channel, the author is comprehensive in his research. His blow-by-blow accounts of Ederle's two attempts to cross from Dover, England, to Cape Gris-Nez, France, demonstrate his engaging style. Stout is also a strong finisher-the second half of the book, saturated with thrills and melodrama, is far superior to the first. A compelling account of a woman who, though long forgotten, changed theway the world viewed swimming. Not quite equal in historical scope to Gavin Mortimer's The Great Swim (2008), but more colorful than Tim Dahlberg's America's Girl (2009). Agent: John Taylor "Ike" Williams/Kneerim & Williams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618858682
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/28/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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Prologue
The English Channel, 51°09' N, 1°26' E, approximately 2.5 miles SSE of Kingsdown Beach, Great Britain. 17:30 French Summer Time, August 6, 1926.
     She has been in the water for nearly twelve hours, tossed up and down, forward and back, upside down and sideways in the froth and spray of the channel between France and England. The white cliffs of Dover loom over the horizon in the fading light only a few miles ahead, and Cape Gris-Nez, the headland where she entered the water in France, is now nearly twenty miles and half a day behind her. The water temperature hovers just above sixty degrees, cold, no warmer than the surrounding air. It is raining and the white-capped waves are running nearly six feet, tossing her up and down and up again with each surge. A stiff wind blows the spray from atop the waves back into her face.
     But Trudy Ederle doesn’t really notice, not anymore. Every moment, every breath, every stroke of her arms and kick of her legs is the same. She is nineteen years old and she is wearing a nearly scandalous two-piece, silk swimming suit. She is covered in sheep grease and petroleum jelly and wears a tight rubber bathing cap over her close-cropped auburn hair. Amber-tinted goggles shield her eyes from the salt water. To her, the sea is not the slate gray it appears from above, or blue, or green. Through the goggles it is a delicious golden ochre.
     She has been swimming since dawn, first at twenty-eight strokes per minute, and now, after almost twelve hours, a slightly slower twenty-two or twenty-four, swimming a new stroke known as the American crawl, a stroke no one has ever used to cross the English Channel.
     In all of human history, only five men have ever made such a crossing. No woman has ever swum the Channel before, and only a handful have ever tried. For more than a year, however, the world has followed Trudy’s quest, first tracking her failure and now, on this day, hoping for her success. If she makes it across she will be the most recognized and famous woman in the world. Everywhere, from the Ederles’ summer home in Highlands, New Jersey, to the White House in Washington, D.C., and Lloyd’s of London, where oddsmakers give her only a slim chance of succeeding, everyone is listening to the radio and reading newspaper bulletins and rooting for her to succeed. She has captured their imaginations. And if she succeeds, she will win their hearts as well.
     Trudy does not think of this, any of it, for such thoughts left her consciousness hours ago, and now there is only this moment, broken into breaths. Every fourth stroke she tilts her head, takes a mouthful of air, then slowly exhales from her nose, watching the bubbles dance before her face as if they belong to some other creature swimming below her, just out sight, and she is somehow riding on its crest.
     It is quiet but it is not completely silent. The sea makes its own muffled sound, and she cannot discern the splash that comes from her arms pinwheeling into the water from the slap of the sea itself against her body, or that of the waves colliding and collapsing and rising again. She is half in, half out of the water, testing the surface beneath the stray gull that sounds overhead, pulling herself and being pulled by the tides and the currents at the same time.
     There are two boats, motorized tugs, one several yards behind her to the starboard side, and another, farther off to the stern, both straining to keep her in sight as she lifts and falls and slips between the waves. The faint hum of the engines spreads like velvet in the water, as natural and soundless as the beating of her own heart.
     One boat holds her father, her sister Meg, her ghostwriter, Julia, and her trainer and coach, Bill Burgess, one of those five men who have swum the Channel before. The second boat holds the press, reporters wrapped in rain gear scratching notes on pads of paper and typing out dispatches in the pilothouse to be sent ashore by wireless. They are waiting for the final moment: the instant she makes it across, is pulled from the water short of her goal, or, as some fear, slips from consciousness and disappears forever beneath the waves. Whatever happens—success, failure, or tragedy—will be a headline the next morning. Trudy Ederle will be either a heroine or a figure of pity known to nearly every man, woman, and child who can read a newspaper.
     She does not think of this. Her thoughts have slowed, and she is all sense—touch and taste, sight and sound.
     She feels these things from afar, notes the sensations, and continues as if she is a kind of artist taking stock of the features of a model, working on a still life, oblivious to time. She does not, really, feel them herself, for her consciousness has closed her off from her own body. She is only a spectator peering out from far inside, focused only on this next stroke, this next breath.
     She is exhausted but not tired. She is cold but does not feel cold. How strange is that? Her lips are chapped and cracking, her thighs and armpits chaffed and stinging, her ears inflamed, her tongue swollen by salt water. Her limbs are numb, and her feet and legs kick on of their own accord. But her center is warm, even glowing, the embers protected deep within.
     And there is no place in the world she would rather be. She has hours still to go, and she is deliriously, hopelessly happy.
 
On the rare clear day when fog and clouds do not obscure the view, at the English Channel’s narrowest point, when one gazes toward England from Cape Gris-Nez in France, the English coastline looks tantalizingly close. The gleaming cliffs of Dover stretch along the horizon in a horizontal stream like a landscape in an oil painting, a smear of titanium white touched with cadmium yellow, daubed above an azure sea. From the heights at Cape Gris-Nez, where wildflowers dance in the offshore breezes, the waters in mid-Channel, filled with boats of all shapes and sizes, can look deceptively calm, even placid. Swimming from one coast to the other seems more a matter of willpower and stamina than anything else, a difficult task, to be sure, and one that requires significant discipline and great athletic ability, but not an impossible one.
     Yet those clear days that make the Channel swim seem so feasible are not just uncommon, but, in fact, a cruel illusion. There are reasons far, far fewer human beings have swum the English Channel than have climbed Mount Everest. More than three thousand people have stood on top of the world since Tensing Norgay and Sir Ed- mund Hillary first accomplished the feat in 1953, yet only nine hundred or so swimmers—one out of every ten who make the attempt—have succeeded in swimming English Channel. The fine weather that makes the journey appear so attainable rarely lasts for long. Conditions in the English Channel can and do change in minutes. A day that begins with gentle breezes and bright sunshine can end in a full-blown gale that even today regularly drives huge ships up onto the shore and sends even the most experienced sailors to their deaths. The waters of the Channel, even in midsummer, in bright sunshine, are bone-chillingly cold, rarely warming much above sixty degrees. Bad weather, not good, is the norm. On most days both the French and the English coasts are obscured behind banks of fog and thick clouds. Each shore is invisible not only from the other, but also to most ships that ply the passage in between. The proximity of either shore provides little comfort.
     The waters of the Channel are rarely quiet. The surf claws at each coast with ferocity, relentlessly wearing it down and occasionally and inexorably causing portions of the cliffs and headlands along the shore to collapse and slip into the sea. In this way the Channel grows ever wider each day as the tides and currents funneled through the narrow passage between the northern Atlantic and the North Sea cause the waters of the Channel to lift and heave as if trying to rip the fabric of what the French refer to as La Manche, “the sleeve.”
     To fully understand the achievement of Trudy Ederle, one must also understand the Channel itself, which is unlike any other body of water on the planet. The waters of the North Sea and those of the Atlantic, brought together in a vicious collision that first created the Channel, have yet to rest. They grasp and pull at everyone and everything that breach their waters. One does not cross the Channel as much as one learns its intricacies and then tries to sneak across before they turn violent and deadly.
     Today, those swimmers who choose to test the waters of the Channel do so for the same reasons that Sir Edmund Hillary chose to climb Mount Everest—because “it is there,” a well-defined challenge and a way to test oneself. If the weather cooperates and the swimmer is in adequate physical condition, psychologically prepared to swim for upward of half a day, and can avoid hypothermia, the path across the Channel is well known. Over time the captains of escort boats and swimmers have managed to decode the complicated tides and currents, and modern sports medicine is adept at preparing swimmers for the challenge through diet and exercise and assisting them along the way with proper nutrition and fluids.
    None of this was the case in 1926. A true pioneer, Trudy Ederle enjoyed none of these advantages. She did not choose to swim the Channel as some kind of complicated existential test, but for reasons that were both larger than herself and intensely personal. She wanted to swim the Channel, but—at least at the beginning—she did not need to do so.
     She knew, of course, that no woman had ever swum the Channel before. From 1922 through 1925 she had been the greatest female swimmer the world had ever seen, winning Olympic medals and setting more than a dozen world records, leaving the English Channel as her only remaining challenge. While she wanted to prove to those who believed a woman could not swim the Channel that, in fact, a woman could, and that she was that woman, Trudy Ederle was no feminist swimming for a cause. Although she was fully aware of the significance of doing what no woman had ever done before, she first decided to try to swim the Channel in 1925 simply because she had nothing left to accomplish in her sport and because others—her coaches and her family—believed she could.
     She failed in that attempt, pulled from the water only halfway across, and afterward members of the crowd nodded knowingly, certain that if Trudy Ederle could not swim the English Channel, then in all likelihood no woman could. And even if a woman ever did swim the Channel, she would not do so using the American crawl. And, most assuredly, her name would not be Trudy Ederle.
     The only way for Trudy to prove everyone wrong was to try again—and succeed. Swimming the English Channel became a challenge to her imagination. Crossing that divide would prove to be the ultimate test of man’s—and a woman’s—endurance

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  • Posted May 18, 2010

    A kick to read at the beach, but not just there: a great read anywhere!

    This book is a gem. Having little love for sports writing and no interest in swimming, I thought this book was kind of a dud gift when I opened it. Boy, was I wrong! It's many different stories which each shine light on the other: the story of pursuing a dream, the story of the evolution of a sport, the story of living with a handicap, the stories of people who made history, the story of a girl in a man's world, and the story of the cultural and technological sea-changes abounding in the early twentieth century. Each story pulls you in and draws you along.
    From the opening pages of the prologue to the final words of the last chapter, Glenn Stout writes with drama and insight, and he leaves you with a tale well-told and no doubt that this is a tale worth telling.
    This is a book with heart. I'm so glad I picked it up, I so enjoyed reading it, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2010

    Best by far on the subject

    This book is about my grandmother's sister Trudy, my grandmother Margaret, and my family so I have heard a lot about this subject all of my life. But, this book goes way beyond just the story of my Aunt Trudy and outlines the whole evolution of swimming, women's swimming, and English Channel swimming. It turns a little known historical event into a great story even for someone that knows the ending

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