U.S. Olympic swimmer Trudy Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, in 1926—and, briefly, the most famous woman in the world—for three reasons:
1. She loved swimming. Ederle didn’t consider her practices to be practices. “I don’t train,” she once said, “if you mean eating special food or anything. And I don’t practice much.”
In reality, Ederle spent an hour or two a day in the water for fun. “I guess I swim as easily as I breathe or walk. And I truly think it ought to be just as natural for everybody.”
2. She hired the best coach. Bill Burgess was the second man to have swum the English Channel, in 1909. The more time she spent with him, the more Ederle liked him. He laughed easily, supported his swimmers and was flexible, involving them in the training process and treating them as partners.
Even as a Brit from another era, Burgess didn’t feel threatened by female athletes or their newfangled stroke, the American crawl.
3. She held her coach accountable. Burgess was under retainer to train Ederle alone, so after she heard that he was training another swimmer, Ederle and her father confronted him. The coach reacted sheepishly. He tried to convince the Ederles there was no harm in the arrangement. They would have none of it.
First of all, the coach needed to accompany Ederle in the water at all times. In addition, she needed to get top priority in swimming the Channel.
Ederle paid her coach the difference in salary to drop the other swimmer but insisted on holding him to his contract.
Bottom line: Between 1922 and 1924, Ederle set world records, becoming as dominant in swimming as Babe Ruth was in baseball. Two years after that, she conquered the English Channel, beating the existing record by almost two hours.
“Breaking one record is often a great year’s work,” sports columnist Grantland Rice wrote about her in 1923. “Smashing seven in one year is a monumental affair.”
— Adapted from Young Woman & the Sea, Glenn Stout, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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