Gertrude Ederle

Gertrude Ederle, who was the toast of America and Europe in 1926 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel, died on November 30. She was 98. Ederle had spent the last several years living at the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, New Jersey, about 25 miles northwest of New York City, said Martin Ward, whose wife is one of Ederle's 10 surviving nieces and nephews. In a roaring decade when Americans cheered daredevils, few were as celebrated as Ederle, who was 20 when she made her historic swim on August 6, 1926.

"People said women couldn't swim the channel," Ederle told The Associated Press 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 roaring ticker-tape parade for her in New York, where she was born in 1905. She met President Calvin 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 marvellous, and I thought only Gertrude could have done it," another top swimmer from the era, Aileen Riggin Soule, said in a 1999 interview with The Associated Press. "She had the stubbornness." Ederle (pronounced ED-er-lee) swam the choppy, treacherous stretch under the most adverse conditions, battling rip tides, cross currents, driving rain and mountainous 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 for the crossing stood for 24 years before it was eclipsed in 1950 by Florence Chadwick, who negotiated 23 miles in 13 hours and 20 minutes.

Her hearing hadn't been good since a childhood bout with the measles, and 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. "I have no complaints," 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."