“You need not care one whit about swimming, women breaking sports barriers or events of the 1920s to be gripped by sportswriter Glenn Stout's fast-paced account of how, in 1926, a partially deaf, 19-year-old New Yorker became the first woman to swim the English Channel… The descriptions of the interaction between Trudy and her crew, Mr. Burgess' plotting of the Z-shape route, the almost hourly press dispatches sent, the hazards Trudy overcame as the storms came, the swells grew and the tide changed earlier than expected are breathtaking.
-The Washington Times
-The Washington Times
“In “Young Woman & The Sea,” his book about Ederle’s life and quest to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, Glenn Stout offers an incredible look at women, sports and the sports industry in the 1920s, while bringing Ederle her due to a new generation... Through a wonderfully crafted story that appeals to both athletes and those drawn to stories of perseverance and adventure, Stout reinvigorates Ederle’s efforts and gives another generation a new source of inspiration.” –The Buffalo News
Once lost to history, swimmer’s story resurfaces
By Amy Moritz
BUFFALO NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
July 19, 2009,
Before Title IX and the women’s sports revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s, there was the golden age of sports.
In the 1920s, female athletes enjoyed popularity and fame.
And none was more famous in the United States than Gertrude Ederle.
If that name leaves you with a cartoon question mark floating above your head, you’re not alone. As quickly and furiously as Ederle rose to fame, so her name and accomplishments faded.
In “Young Woman & The Sea,” his book about Ederle’s life and quest to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, Glenn Stout offers an incredible look at women, sports and the sports industry in the 1920s, while bringing Ederle her due to a new generation.
Stout’s style is interesting. Not a straightforward biography of Ederle, the book begins by discussing the tragic sinking of a steamship in 1904 that took the lives of more than 1,000 passengers who were on a church outing up the East River to Long Island Sound. Many of those who died, including hundreds of women and children, drowned close to shore in shallow water due to their panic at not knowing how to swim.
This tragedy, which shook New York City, inspired a movement to teach swimming to women and children. It allowed the traditional mores of modesty for women to be loosened in the name of public and personal safety.
Swimming was now not only an appropriate, but an important skill for women to learn.
And that opened the door for Ederle.
Stout spends the first part of the book alternating chapters between the challenge of swimming the English Channel and the storied history of that athletic endurance feat and the childhood of Ederle. The daughter of German immigrants, Trudy was the youngest of three girls. They spent summers at the Highlands, learned how to swim in the open water, then took lessons at the growing Women’s Swimming Association during the winter months.
To understand Ederle’s accomplishment, Stout takes care to describe previous Channel crossings and why crossing the small body of water is so difficult. Swimmers take as much time studying the tides, currents and weather patterns of the mysterious body of water as they do training for the actual swim.
As much as the book is a lesson in endurance history, it also offers a bit of swimming history, as the time frame of Ederle’s lessons coincides with the introduction of the “American crawl,” or freestyle stroke. Previously, the breaststroke was considered the superior form of moving quickly through the water, and the politics of that are discussed, though not thoroughly drawn out, in the book.
For Stout, Ederle’s rise to fame began when she won the Day Cup Race in 1922 at Manhattan Beach. At the age of 15, she was touring the country in swim meets against the best in the world. And not only consistently winning but setting world records.
“Trudy was so good,” Stout writes, “it was almost getting monotonous. . . . Few athletes of any kind and of any gender have ever dominated a sport the way Trudy Ederle did from the fall of 1922 through the summer of 1924 — she held virtually every imaginable women’s world record in swimming at distances that ranged from fifty yards to one mile.”
But with all that success, and all the hype, Ederle failed to produce at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Stout tells the story of how the American women’s swimming team was treated as second-rate by the powers-that-be and its potential effect on Ederle’s performance. She came away with two bronze medals for her individual events and one gold in a relay. She called it the greatest disappointment of her life, and Stout points to that moment as the time when crossing the Channel would become her personal salvation, of sorts.
The story continues to chronicle her decision to swim the Channel, her hunt for a coach and her first failed attempt in 1925, and her desire to try again, this time successfully, in 1926.
Stout’s writing makes him a solid storyteller, with a narrative largely pieced together from newspapers, letters and journals. He re-creates scenes and emotions that might be “historical fiction,” but they are based in solid research and happily glide the reader through the story.
While close to half a million people turned out for her ticker-tape parade in New York City, Ederle’s shyness and some poor business decisions by her father kept her out of the public eye and hence made it easy for her to fade from the public’s mind.
But her legacy, though unheralded, remained intact.
“For even as Trudy was fading from memory, due in large part to her effort, women athletes were becoming ever more commonplace and accepted,” Stout wrote.
Through a wonderfully crafted story that appeals to both athletes and those drawn to stories of perseverance and adventure, Stout reinvigorates Ederle’s efforts and gives another generation a new source of inspiration.
Amy Moritz is a sports writer at The Buffalo News who finds swimming a few hundred meters in Lake Erie challenging enough.