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Gertrude Ederle, first woman to swim English Channel; at 98

NEW YORK -- Gertrude Ederle, who was the toast of America and Europe in 1926 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel, died yesterday. She was 98.

In a roaring decade in which Americans cheered daredevils, few were as celebrated as Ms. Ederle, who was 20 when she made her historic swim on Aug. 6.

"People said women couldn't swim the channel," Ms. Ederle said in a 2001 interview marking the 75th anniversary of her feat. "I proved they could."

When she returned to her native land, there were celebrations, receptions, and a ticker-tape parade for her in New York, where she was born. She met President Coolidge, was paid thousands to tour in vaudeville, played herself in a movie ("Swim, Girl, Swim"), and had a song and a dance step named for her.

Only five men had succeeded in swimming the channel before her, and she beat the record by more than two hours.

"I thought it was marvelous, and I thought only Gertrude could have done it," another top swimmer from the era, Aileen Riggin Soule, said in a 1999 interview. "She had the stubbornness."

Ms. Ederle (pronounced ED-er-lee) swam the treacherous stretch under adverse conditions, battling rip tides, cross currents, driving rain, and heavy seas, as well as a constant threat of floating debris, poisonous jellyfish, and sharks. She left Cape Griz-Nez, France, at 7:05 a.m. and stumbled ashore at Kingsdown, England, 14 hours and 30 minutes later.

Because of the stormy weather, she had swum 35 miles in crossing the 21-mile-wide channel. Yet her time stood for 24 years before it was broken in 1950 by Florence Chadwick, who negotiated 23 miles in 13 hours and 20 minutes.

Two tugs accompanied her, one filled with relatives and friends, and the other with reporters and photographers, some of them seasick. A phonograph played lively tunes to buoy her spirit, and those in the boats sang, too.

But Ms. Ederle said her well-wishers needed to be buoyed up more than she did.

"I had to keep joking with them to keep their spirits up," she recalled. "I remember they sang endlessly: `Let Me Call You Sweetheart,' `Sweet Rosie O'Grady,' and `After the Ball Is Over.' But when the storm was fiercest, they all looked as if they were going to a funeral. Every time I stopped, they jumped and said, `What's the matter, Trudy? Everything OK?' "

During some of the toughest moments, her trainer tried to get her to give up. "I'd just look at him and say, `What for?' " she recalled.

At the ticker-tape parade, the crowds shouted, "Hello, Miss What-For!"

She was little affected by the fame. She remained what one writer called her, "an almost old-fashioned girl in a world of flappers." Soule, who toured with Ms. Ederle in a swimming exhibition, recalled her as "a sweet person -- thoughtful, kind. She even wrote poetry."

Ms. Ederle held a string of world records at various distances. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, she was hobbled by the stress of travel and turned in a disappointing performance -- by her standards -- of one second-place finish, one third-place finish, and a first on a relay team. In 1925, she swam the 21 miles from the tip of Manhattan to Sandy Hook, N.J., in seven hours, 11 1/2 minutes, bettering the record held by men.

That same year, she made her first try at the English Channel, saying later that she failed only because a worried trainer grabbed her when she briefly began coughing. As soon as someone touched her, she was disqualified.

Ms. Ederle fell down a flight of stairs in 1933, injuring her spine. Battling back, she returned to the spotlight at the 1939 World's Fair, swimming in a show at the famous Aquacade.

Her hearing had not been good since a childhood bout with the measles, and the hours spent in the water aggravated the problem. By the 1940s, she was deaf.

Out of the spotlight, she taught deaf children to swim -- "since I can't hear either, they feel I'm one of them" -- and participated in some business ventures. Giving few interviews, she lived quietly in Queens for many years. She had spent the last several years living at the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, N.J., about 25 miles northwest of New York City.

"I have no complaints," Ms. Ederle said in one interview in the 1950s. "I am comfortable and satisfied. I am not a person who reaches for the moon as long as I have the stars. God has been good to me."

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