NEW YORK -- At age 80, Gertrude Ederle still bubbles with enthusiasm in recalling her 1926 history-making swim of the English Channel.
Ederle's memory is sharp in calling up the details of that record-setting 14-hour Channel crossing. She waded into the water at Gris-Nez, France, on Aug. 6, 1926, with the intention of swimming to Dover, England, a distance of 20 miles. Rough seas forced her to make a detour into the North Sea and she swam an additional 15 miles to reach the English shore at Deal.
The previous best time for the crossing was by a male swimmer in 16 hours, 23 minutes and that was for the 20 mile distance.
Ederle, born in New York, achieved fame two years earlier at the 1924 Olympics in Paris when she won bronze medals in the 100 and 400 meter freestyle and was part of the gold medal 400 meter relay team.
'I was burying myself until they asked me to do a couple of things on behalf of this year's United States Olympic team,' Ederle says. 'It brought back all those memories.'
Ederle was barely out of her teens when she qualified for the American squad in the 1924 Games. She remembers the Olympics as a ball for American kids from over the pond making their first trip to the continent.
'We used to steal in at night without officials knowing it,' Ederle giggled. 'We were all over Paris. Really made a nuisance of ourselves. One night six of us got into a taxi for a ride back to our athletic quarters. The cab driver kept shouting at us and wouldn't move. Finally, somebody translated his screams into there being too many people in the cab.
'That was a lot of fun. But it wasn't as impressive as when John D. Rockefeller introduced himself to me at our Briarcliff Lodge (N.Y.) Olympic training hotel and said he always admired my swimming. At that time I held the world record at the 100 and 400 meter distances.'
Ederle, partially deaf as a result of too much immersion in water during her swimming days, said that after her Channel swim she read in the newspapers about a ticker tape parade for tennis star Helen Wills in New York.
'I said to my sister wouldn't it be nice if I got a welcome like that? When we came to New York, we couldn't believe what we saw. There were fireboats surrounding our ocean liner and spraying water in the air as a salute to me. All of a sudden planes circled the boat and swooped down, dropping bouquets of beautiful flowers. Whistles blew. It was just breath-taking.'
Ederle still receives fan mail from people about her historic Channel performance. Many ask her feelings during the occasion.
'I tell them that when I entered the water all I thought about was bringing honors to America. When I looked up at the support boat and saw the American flag flying, tattered by the wind, I'd just dig in a little deeper. At no time did I ever think of quitting.
'I was wearing full view goggles made by an optical company especially for me and I wasn't bothered by the high breaking waves, even though they looked like snow mountains curling over me. I really enjoyed that swim.'
Nourishment was never a problem during her time in the water. She ate very little. Previously, she said, Channel swimmers would stop about every 20 mintues for nourishment. This created nausea, weakened them and ended many attempts.
'At first, all I had was sugar,' Ederle says. 'My tongue was swollen and they gave me some pineapple juice and a little chicken broth from a baby bottle lowered on a string. No human hands were permitted to touch the swimmer. You'd tread water and sip. Once in a while, bang, comes a wave and you're swallowing some salt water.
'I remember stopping swimming suddenly at about 7:30 in the evening, not too far from my desintation, and everybody was worried. I merely told them I was hungry for a steak smothered in onions and mushrooms.
'I never did get my steak. They gave me a ham sandwich. But what a marvelous reception. There were bonfires and crowds of people greeting me.'
Two years adfter the Channel feat, she toured the United States with a William Morris agency troupe, swimming and speaking to the public. Later she joined impressario Billy Rose.
Ederle had to put on 10 pounds for the Channel swim and returned to the U.S. at a 'chunky' 150. She trimmed to 128 with her aquatic show appearances and subsequently was offered $2,000 a week and all expenses paid to tour Europe, However, she was exhausted from pressures of daily performances and a doctor said she risked complete deafness if the undertook the European tour. He advised Ederle to stay out of water for a while.
'I was always hard of hearing, but at age 23 I was going deaf from being in the water too much.'
She wanted to teach swimming, but the New York City Board of Education would not hire her because of the hearing disability. Ederle began teaching youngsters to swim at the Lexington School For The Deaf.
'That was ironic,' she sighs. 'I couldn't get into the public schools and pass along my abilities, but I wind up teaching a lot of deaf kids. The mayor could have gotten me an appointment, but I wanted to do it on my own. I do a lot of lip reading now. The deafness makes me shy when I'm asked to speak to groups. But I've had my day, don't you think so.'
Trudy Ederle still has her days.