Sunday, October 18, 2009

They're Off

On Tuesday, October 20, eight swimmers will enter the water at gangway one at Battery Park in New York City and seek to duplicate Trudy Ederle's 1925 swim to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. This 17.5 mile swim - in water that if usually anout 65 degrees F, crossing a busy shipping channel - is a challenge worthy of our admiration. Good luck and safe travels to everyone who is participating.

Here is a brief excerpt from my biography of Trudy, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, about the swim that inspired Tuesday's event:

"For an hour and a half Trudy gamely slogged along, each stroke of her arm and pull of her hand gained her only a few feet against the current as she slowly cut across Buttermilk Channel between the Battery and Governor’s Island, and then finally clear of the island itself. She was already exhausted but had covered less than two miles and occasionally turned over on her side to relive her muscles of cramping. In mid-harbor the water temperature barely reached sixty degrees. At the break of dawn Sandy Hook was hardly any closer than it had been when she had started.

There was concern aboard the Helys, where Epstein and the others looked at the girl, clearly struggling, with grim faces and spoke to each other in hushed tones. In hushed voices they openly wondered if Trudy should abandon the attempt. There seemed little chance that Trudy, who appeared lethargic and beaten, could succeed, and they didn’t want her confidence to suffer.

Then, as if the struggle jolted her awake, Trudy began picking up her pace, finally fighting the tide rather than allowing herself to be pushed around. As she did, first slowly and then in a rush, the tide turned, the sun lifted in the sky and hit the water. AS the conditions changed, so did Trudy’s mood. Her rate of speed in the water doubled, and then tripled as the Hudson River chased the tide out to sea in a rush and Trudy rode the current back out.

Trudy and the two accompanying vessels stayed close to the Brooklyn shore through the Narrows and then caught a current that sent her out into the deeper water of the shipping channel. Sandy Hook was still out of sight, hidden by morning fog still lingering farther out at seas, but the crew on the Helys directed her way with an onboard compass.

At 10:30 the fog began to lift, first revealing the Highlands, Trudy’s second home, and then, finally, the low beach and dunes of Sandy Hook, a fine white line along the horizon.

Victory was in sight, barely one mile away. But over the last few hours the tide had slowed and then turned slack. Now it began to run again and pushing back against Trudy just as her energy began to fade. The motorboat slowed to keep pace, barely crawling through the water. From her seat on the boat, Meg could see that Trudy was losing ground, and the success that a few moments before had seemed so certain now seemed far off. And no one was doing anything about it.

Meg had enough. She jumped from her seat, cupped her hands around her mouth and called to her sister. “Hey!” she shouted, startling everyone. Meg’s voice cut through the Trudy’s fatigue and the swimmer’s head snapped around. “Get going, lazy bones,” Meg called out. “You’re loafing!” Indignant at the insult, Trudy fixed her sister in her sights.

“Loafing, am I?” she called back. “For that I’ll make it if it kills me!” Then Trudy turned back to the water, put her head down, reached out with her arms and with each stroke pulled the shore closer again, turning inside herself, swimming as if she was doing intervals in the WSA pool, her stroke strong and true. Meg watched with a satisfied smile as Trudy began to put some distance between herself and the Helys. The boat pilot leaned on the throttle and as the Highlands peaked over the horizon Meg exhorted her sister to swim even faster

As the buildings of Fort Hancock, on the northern edge point of the Hook, began to appear, Trudy picked up her pace. The fort commander had been informed in advance of their plans and a small crowd of Trudy’s friends and her family were waiting onshore as she sprinted the final hundred yards before finally reaching the shallows. When her arms hit bottom she popped to her feet and began wading to shore, rubbing her eyes, which were red and raw with irritation from salt water. She had swam for much of the last few hours with her eyes closed, all sounds muffled due to her hearing loss, her arms and legs numb from the cold, yet this had not deterred her or even caused her to slow down.

It was 11:53 am. She had been in the water for seven hours, eleven minutes and 30 seconds, nearly seven minutes faster than the existing record. She had not only succeeded, but she had shattered a record previously held by a man, and done so only one day after she had set a world record in a 150-yard race. As soon as their boat hit the beach several newspaper men dashed off in search of a telephone, to call the story in to the evening papers

After spending a few moments to collect herself, Trudy pronounced herself fit – and hungry. She had neither eaten nor taken any drink during her time in the water. A reporter asked her whether she was tired and she replied “Not much. I could have kept on going if I had to.”

When another made mention of a “second wind,” Trudy shook her head disparagingly. “I’ve heard other swimmers talk about it,” she said, “but I don’t think I have a second wind. I usually feel a little tired during the first mile but after that I am all right.” With that she was escorted to the Fort’s dining room for a meal, and then boarded the boat for the journey back, where she amazed everyone as she alternately sat and stood on deck, chatting away as if she had just returned from swimming practice."

Just a few days later, full of confidence, Trudy left for England to swim the Channel.
[The photo is of Cloak Island, off the southern shore of Isle la Motte on Lake Champlain. I have circumnavigated Isle la Motte by kayak several times, a distance of about 15 miles, and cannot fathom swimming so far.]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

That Time Again

I love it. I hate it.

I love it.

For eleven months of the year I am a fairly reasonable person, outwardly responsible, usually calm and composed, and able to keep things in perspective. Baseball is in my life, but it is not my life, at least not the way it was when I was younger. Nowadays I don’t stay awake staring at the ceiling after a meaningless game in May wondering why someone threw a slider over the plate on an 0-2 count, or took a hanging changeup for strike three with two outs and all the runners moving. I stopped beating myself up over stupid stuff like leaving a game early. If I fall asleep watching and wake up to the infomercials, I’ll turn the TV off and go to bed without checking on the score, and in the morning it is sometimes ten or eleven a.m. before I even think to check the games on the west coast.

When my wife and I receive an invitation to do something, or my daughter has an evening concert at school, I never even consider checking the schedule ahead of time – I’ll miss the game. On long car trips, if someone wants to listen to another station or play a cd instead of listening to the game, I’m fine with that. When the TV in the bedroom goes on the blink, I change the channel and let everyone watch Glee on the good set. I skip past Baseball Tonight, I’ll go a couple days sometimes without checking in on the message boards, and I hardly ever buy the Sunday Globe anymore. Baseball is still out there, I know it, but it is a luxury and an indulgence, not a necessity.

Then the page on the calendar flips over and word at the top says “October.”


Goodbye, peace. Hello, anxiety. See you later, common sense. Distraction, my old friend, where you been keeping yourself? The playoffs are here and minute by minute my fa├žade of indifference crumbles. The twenty-fifth man on the roster is more important to my life than anything Barack Obama is going to do. I scour the internet for umpire ball/strike ratios. I forget to let the dogs back in, decide the car can go another month before I fix the muffler, and let God rake the leaves.

Dinners out can wait. We see the neighbors way too often. I never liked the movies that much anyway. Sleep is overrated. So is exercise. Forget supper – I’m running to the corner for a six pack. And some Doritos. And some Tums.

I buy the papers. I get a new TV for the bedroom. I give each of the cats a full can of food whenever they want it. I steal my daughter’s laptop, keep it next to my chair and hit refresh every ten seconds. I agree with everything my wife says. I dig out the lucky hat, the one I wore the last time they… you know, the last time they did the thing that you’ve talked about all summer like it was nothing but that you can’t say out loud now because you’ll jinx it. You know, the best of seven thing, that thing.

I’m a mess. I squeeze the anxiety ball, bite my nails, check my pulse obsessively, eat an aspirin every day, and try to stay hydrated. I watch the post game, and the post, post game, and the press conferences. I read the game threads - ours when we win, theirs when they lose.

I cheer. I cry. I scream. I gloat. I lose my voice. I throw the remote across the room. I jump out of my chair and wake up the neighborhood. I put my fist through the wall. I slump to the floor.

October – I hate it.

I can’t wait.

from Boston Baseball, October 2009. The photo shows the way fans used to have to watch the post-season in pre-TV, pre-radio days.

Glenn Stout will be appearing the Boston Book Festival on October 24. His latest books are Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, and The Best American Sports Writing 2009. Contact Glenn on Facebook, at, or on his blog,