Gertrude Ederle was one of the greatest swimmers of her time, and a founding queen of marathon swimming. In 1926, she was the first woman to cross the English Channel, in 14 hours 39 minutes – almost 2 hours faster than any man had done it. This feat earned her a ticker-tape parade in New York City, her hometown.
I’ve been reading Penny Lee Dean‘s wonderful history of Catalina Channel swimming, in which Ederle makes a notable appearance. Though Ederle never attempted a Catalina swim, the first successful crossing (in 1927) was directly inspired by her success in the English Channel.
William Wrigley, Jr. (of Wrigley chewing gum), seeing an opportunity to promote tourism on Catalina Island (in which he owned a controlling interest), offered Ederle $10,000 to become the first person to swim across the channel between Avalon and the San Pedro peninsula. When Ederle refused, Wrigley raised the purse to $25,000 and invited all comers for a winner-take-all marathon race. 102 swimmers began the Wrigley Ocean Marathon on January 15, 1927, in choppy 54-degree water. Only one finished: 17-year old George Young of Toronto, in 15 hours 44 minutes.
Before the race, Ederle offered some advice to the contestants:
It’s a race, I know, but the pace setters will find out that it’s better to take things easy. . . The swimmer who forgets that he or she is in a race will win. Condition is everything, but too fast a pace or swimming in spurts can bring on the cramps and fatigue. The steady tempo is the best, and forget all about your rivals. The stomach is the key to success or failure. . . Sickness brings on cramps. Either you get sick or you don’t, and training has nothing to do with that angle of it. . . Those who do must fight it off or give up. You can’t swim when you are seasick. The food question is an individual one. . . Ordinarily, though, I should say that chicken broth is best for food value and runs the smaller risk of turning the stomach. On my swim I had chicken broth, hot chocolate, end two slices of pineapple. . . Grease will not stay long. The grease helps you to stand the shock of entering the water, but it comes off quickly. . . Keep your mouth closed when swimming, at least enough to keep the salt water out. Nothing can upset you like salt water in the stomach. Do not look ahead of you. And if you feel like quitting, just keep right on swimming anyway.
73 years later, some things have changed in marathon swimming – stroke technique, training regimens, and swimsuit materials. But the essentials remain the same: Don’t take it out too hard; avoid seasickness; consume warm liquids and easily digestible food; don’t drink the saltwater; and keep going, even if you don’t want to.