The True Story Behind Young Woman and the Sea

5 minute read

The 2024 Paris Summer Olympics are still two months away, but to tide you over, there's a new Disney movie about an Olympic swimmer making a splash in theaters. In Young Woman and the Sea, out Friday and directed by Joachim Rønning, Daisy Ridley stars as Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle, the first woman to swim the English channel.

Ederle, an American, was a major figure in the nascent world of women’s sports in the 1920s and dominated women’s swimming.

“She held virtually every world record you could hold for women’s freestyle swimming,” said Glenn Stout, author of the 2009 book that inspired the film, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World.

The movie takes pains to depict Ederle’s life faithfully and to make the movie seem as realistic as possible. For example, the swimming scenes were shot on the open ocean, in the Black Sea and the English Channel.

New York City childhood

The film starts with Ederle as a child on death’s door with measles in a New York City tenement. She makes a miraculous recovery with slight hearing damage and becomes determined to learn how to swim like her sister Meg and the athletes training on Coney Island. Pools are afraid to let her in the water in case she is still contagious, so her father ties a rope around Ederle and takes her into the Atlantic Ocean to teach her himself. In the film, Trudy is depicted playing the ukulele all day every day and singing off-key until her father agrees to let her swim, a charming scene but according to Stout, not one that actually happened.

Eventually she is coached by Charlotte Epstein, who founded the Women’s Swimming Association. The organization launched to teach women how to swim after the 1904 General Slocum disaster, in which more than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, drowned when a passenger ship caught fire on New York City’s East River. Soon, Ederle was collecting all the swimming medals a woman could win in amateur competitions. In the 1924 Paris Olympics, she won a gold medal in a relay and two bronze medals.

As the movie depicts, Ederle really did swim more than 16 miles from Lower Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. In the film, Ridley embarks on the arduous swim to secure funding for her English Channel attempt, emerging from the water to surprise a potential sponsor as he’s having seafood dinner with his mother. Sopping wet, she joins them in pigging out. While that’s not how she got the sponsorship in real life, the scene shows the lengths she was willing to go to swim the English Channel.

The Women’s Swimming Association had planned to sponsor another woman, Helen Wainwright, to swim the English Channel, but when she became injured, Ederle stepped in.

A failed first channel attempt

Her first channel attempt in 1925 ended when she became sick and had to be rescued. Ederle always believed she had been poisoned and suspected her coach, Jabez Wolffe, because there were other women he preferred to train for the feat. In the movie, Ederle is seen reuniting with her father and sister and then immediately heading back to France. In reality, she waited another year to try again.

Ederle changed coaches for the second attempt, hiring Bill Burgess, and that made all of the difference. Burgess, the second man to swim the English Channel, was a rival of Wolffe. “Burgess I think wanted to prove that he was a better trainer than Wolffe was,” says Stout. It was Burgess who taught Ederle how to swim with the tides, not against them.

Meg, Ederle’s sister, helped too in key ways, like using candle wax to fix holes in her sister’s goggles, and by cutting Ederle’s suit into two pieces—fashioning what could be the first bikini—and making it tighter so it didn’t create any drag and chafe her anymore. But they couldn’t protect her against the countless jellyfish, sharks, and old sea mines from World War I.

Subsisting off fried chicken tossed to her in the water, Ederle successfully completed the swim on Aug. 6, 1926, in 14 hours and 31 mins, beating the male record by 2 hours. The accomplishment “blew out of the water the argument that women did not have the physical capacity to compete in sports,” says Stout. “In the 1928 Olympics, many more events were opened up for women because of Trudy’s success in 1926.”

The movie recreates footage of the ticker-tape parade in Ederle’s honor on August 27, 1926, in New York City. Once the parade was over, she generally avoided the spotlight. She did do a few stunts like swimming in a tank for a vaudeville show. Over the years, she found it difficult to do public appearances, between injuring her back in a fall in 1933 and her worsening hearing from so much swimming. She did, however, enjoy teaching swimming to deaf children for many years. Ederle died in 2003 in a New Jersey nursing home at the age of 98. Her New York Times obituary reported that she had never married, but was survived by 10 nieces and nephews.

She reflected on her record swim in one of her final interviews in 2001 with the New York Times. ''It was just that everybody was saying it couldn't be done. Well, every time somebody said that, I wanted to prove it could be done. It took a Yankee to show them how.'' 

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