Glenn Stout, a longtime favorite here at Bronx Banter, is most famous around these parts for his historical writing, particularly Yankee Century and Red Sox Century. Stout also serves as the series editor for The Best American Sports Writing; his oral history Nine Months at Ground Zero is one of the most fascinating and devastating things I’ve ever read about 9.11.
Stout has a website as well as a blog, and his latest book, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, may be the most interesting project of his career. It is the story of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel (read an excerpt here).
I had the chance to talk to Stout about the book. Here is our conversation. Enjoy.
Bronx Banter: I know you are comfortable writing about history, especially in the first part of the 20th century. What drew you to Ederle?
Glenn Stout: Her story is seminal, as central to the story of American sports in this century as that of Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, yet to most people Trudy, aka Gertrude Ederle, is unknown. I wanted to change that. In many ways she was both the first modern female athlete and one of America’s first celebrities. Had she not done what she had done, which is not only to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but in the process to beat the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, the entire history of women’s sports would be radically different. You can, I think, break down the history of women’s sports in this country into “Before Trudy” and “After Trudy.” Before Trudy female athletes were anomalies, and their accomplishments, with just a few exceptions, primarily took place out of the public eye. Many early female athletes, like Eleanora Sears, and Annette Kellerman, were sometimes seen as publicity hounds who performed stunts, and not serious athletes. The question of whether or not women were either psychologically or physically capable of being athletes was still a topic of debate – at least by the men who ran sports. Although there would still be some who would stubbornly cling to that belief, by swimming the English Channel and shattering the existing men’s record, Trudy answered that question quite definitively.
She was the answer. One can argue that had it not been for her women would not have been allowed to compete in track and field and many other sports as early as they did – women competed in track events for the first time at the Olympics in 1928. It may have been another generation – until after World War II – before there was any acceptance of female athletes. I am old enough to remember when women could not play little league, or run marathons, and when school sports were pretty much limited to gymnastics and basketball. Now of course, women can and do play everything. Without Trudy that happens much later than it did.
Trudy also has a compelling personal story that I think resonates with any reader. She grew up in New York, the daughter of German immigrants and overcame anti-German prejudice in the wake of World War I to become arguably the most famous woman in the world. At the same time, she was partially deaf, and was able to overcome that challenge. Swimming the English Channel, while perceived to be somewhat commonplace today, is still extremely difficult – it was the first “extreme” sport. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the Channel, and most of those who try to swim the Channel fail. In most years more people will succeed in climbing Everest than in swimming the Channel. When I first began to research the book, that really, really surprised me, and made Trudy’s story even more compelling.
BB: Why isn’t Ederle remembered like Grange, Thorpe, Ruth and the other greats of the first great era of sports? For someone who had such a profound impact, why has her legacy faded?
GS: Hopefully, my book will help rectify that, but there are several reasons. Trudy herself soon discovered she just wasn’t cut out for the spotlight. Within 48 hours of her return to the United States, where New York gave her an enormous ticker tape parade, she was in the fetal position in her bedroom, completely overwhelmed. She was both slow and reluctant to “cash in” on her achievement. Her attorney mis-managed her career, turning down easy money for a grueling vaudeville tour. By the time that got going a male swimmer had broken her record, and a second female swam the Channel, which stole some of her thunder – the public began to think that swimming the Channel was far easier than it is, something that holds true today. She also had increasing trouble with her hearing – she was partially deaf since a bout with the measles as a child, and that made her less comfortable in the public eye. And few years after the swim she fell and was virtually bed-ridden for a time. And let’s face it, swimming simply isn’t a big spectator sport like football or baseball.
BB: What is Ederle’s reputation in the world of women’s swimming? Is she properly recognized?
GS: Swimming historians certainly recognize her as one of the all-time greats, but in a sport like swimming, records have been broken so many times that it is difficult for any swimmer from her era to remain in the public eye. Her only contemporary recognized b y the public today is Johnny Weissmuller, and that’s because of the Tarzan films. But in the world of swimming, she has to rank as one of the top seven or eight swimmers of all-time. No one else combined her success at shorter distances with open water success, and in the world of open water swimming, I think she’s right at the top. Anyone who has ever swum the Channel, or thought about it, knows about her.
BB: How did Ederle manage to beat the existing time of swimming the channel by such a great margin? That seems almost inconceivable.
GS: There are a couple of reasons. For one, she used a stroke known then as the “American Crawl” essentially what most people recognize as the “freestyle” today. Her coach with the Women’s Swimming Association was one of the strokes pioneers and its greatest advocate. And although it had been used for about two decades, no one believed it could be used for long distance swimming – it was thought to be too demanding, physically. Long distance swimmers usually used the breast stroke at the time, with occasional use of the side-stroke and trudgeon. The crawl was much faster, and Handley recognized that women in general, and Trudy in particular, although not as strong as a man, had just as much stamina. She was the first swimmer to use the stroke in the Channel, and proved the superiority of the stroke. Secondly, her trainer for the Channel swim, William Burgess, was a real student of the Channel currents and tides, and he found a somewhat new route across that was something of a breakthrough. Also, before Trudy most of the people who tried to swim the Channel simply were not great swimmers. They had great stamina, and desire, but as swimmers were rather pedestrian. Trudy was world class at every distance from fifty yards on up. She was simply a far, far, far better swimmer than anyone else who had swam the Channel before. For a swimmer of her ability to take on the Channel would be the equivalent of Michael Phelps to do so today – if he had her stamina. And lastly, while Trudy was growing up she spent summers in Highlands, New Jersey, where she spent hours and hours swimming in the ocean. She developed a very special relationship with the water, once saying “To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.” When she was swimming, she was in her place, right where she wanted to be, and where others found only torture, she found joy, and when you love what you do, well, there are no limits.