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 the way 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).