More than a marathon (part 1)

In the mid 1920s, veteran sportswriters in America consistently reported on one sporting event as the quintessential challenge to athletic prowess, strength, and endurance. The sport that sparked unprecedented media-hype and front-page newspaper coverage in 1926 wasn’t the World Series but the English Channel swim.

Front pages of the LA Times, NYT, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Washington Post covering Ederle's record-breaking swim.
Front pages of the LA Times, New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Washington Post announcing Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking swim of the English Channel on August 6, 1926.

When, on August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman in the world to complete the harrowing swim, the press created a national hero. Headlines of her triumph dominated the front pages of major American newspapers for days. Weeks later, millions of fans from across the country clogged streets of New York City to shower Ederle with over four hundred tons of confetti in the congratulatory parade which became New York’s largest ticker-tape parade to that date. The Nation listed her among Henry Ford and Clarence Darrow as the most important individuals of 1926.

New York City's parade celebrating Gertrude Ederle's Channel swim, August 27, 1926.
New York City’s parade celebrating Gertrude Ederle’s Channel swim, August 27, 1926. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Advertisers used images of Ederle and other English Channel swimmers to sell myriad products from cigarettes to wristwatches. Why did the American media provide so much coverage of marathon swim that occurred overseas?

Mild curiosity began after Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the Channel in 1875. Several attempted to replicate his feat but until 1926, all but five attempts resulted in failure. The press began covering Channel swims regularly because each swim tested athleticism in dual ways: athletes competed against one another and against nature whose unpredictable elements made for dramatic reporting. Sometimes weather forced swimmers postpone starting, allowing the press to build readers’ anticipation. Often swimmers set off to calm seas but sudden squalls caused ten-foot waves. Powerful tides forced athletes to swim extra miles, zigzagging eastward then westward and, in the early 20th century, tides often swept swimmers beyond jagged promontories lining the beach, preventing many from finishing within a mile of the coast.

Additional threats came from aquatic life lurking in the water. Serious swimmers followed the Channel Swimming Association rules (see part 2), leaving them vulnerable to repeated (sometimes disfiguring) jellyfish stings. Until the mid 1920s, most athletes swam without goggles; the constant exposure to salt water temporarily blinded many, like Peter McNally of Boston who attempted the swim in 1897. Not only did he endure saltwater blindness, his nasal passages swelled shut; unable to breathe he was hauled from the water. Prolonged immersion in salt water chafed the skin of many swimmers or caused them to bloat. Swimmers also risked hypothermia and delirium induced by physical and mental exhaustion. The media carefully reported (in surprising detail) on all of these challenges.

To Americans in the 1920s, the Channel swim became more than a marathon: it represented an almost impossible challenge, a new frontier to confront and conquer. The swim provided an opportunity to use scientific methods and theories to subdue nature. Coaches like Englishman “Bill” [Thomas William] Burgess—the second man to swim the Channel—charted the tides, carefully timing the swimmer’s start. Newspaper reporters fueled a cultural obsession with records, marathons, and the measurement of efficiency.

Most importantly, following WWI the swim became a place to wage ideological wars. As an international competition, it provided a virtual battlefield on which nations could wage athletic wars to demonstrate national superiority. In May 1923, the London Daily Sketch offered a £1000 (then roughly $5000) prize to the first person to swim across the strait (to date, only Englishmen had succeeded). The Sketch contest enticed many aspiring athletes from various nations including two swimmers from Massachusetts, Henry Sullivan and Charles Toth. Both working-class men (a shoemaker and waiter) succeeded under dramatic conditions.

After a decade of saving and training, Sullivan prevailed on his seventh attempt: 27 hours 25 minutes of continual swimming. His triumph after repeated failure reinforced a traditional American ideology that prized fortitude, determination, and self-reliance. Sullivan’s perseverance earned widespread media attention in America and England and advertisers used him for celebrity endorsements.

Advertisement issued by the National Milk Publicity Council,  The [London] Times, 1923.
Advertisement issued by the National Milk Publicity Council, The [London] Times, 1923.
Decades before the lucrative “Got Milk?” campaign created by the California Milk Processor Board, London’s National Milk Publicity Council, used (then) famous athletes in ads in The [London] Times to promote the near-magical health properties of milk. Sullivan’s ad urged: “Safeguard your health, maintain your strength, increase your stamina by taking plenty of fresh milk.”

The year Sullivan succeeded also witnessed the first American woman to attempt the marathon. The first woman (an Austrian noblewoman) attempted the Channel swim in 1900 but few believed that women possessed the physical or mental strength to endure the grueling swim. Following WWI, however, increasing numbers of women from several countries competed. Women confronted nature, other athletes and the gender stereotypes that society had constructed. The press heightened its descriptions of the swim as a contest for national hegemony. The substantive newspaper coverage devoted to women Channel swimmers stressed that the first woman to complete the swim would bring unheralded honor to her country. When Ederle succeeded in her second attempt, becoming the first woman in the world to swim the Chanel, she also surpassed all previous records set by men–by nearly two hours.

In a fevered patriotism, the media pointed first and foremost to her accomplishment as evidence of America’s complete supremacy. Ederle, too, emphasized American nationalism, remarking, “there were swimmers from all the nations, Russian, German, French, English, Egyptian and even Japanese, and I made my swim with the thought alone of bringing the honor to my country.”

The press transformed her into a national hero. She received congratulations from President Coolidge who dubbed her “America’s Best Girl.” When polled by the press in Chicago and Washington, DC, more women aspired be like Ederle than like Miss America.

Why has Ederle been all but forgotten by the mainstream American public today? (continued in part 2)