Gertrude Ederle (1906 - 2003) was one of those remarkable women who in the early decades of the last century proved that females were as physically capable of taking on extreme challenges as any male. On 6 August 1926, at the age of 20, she became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel, a feat accomplished by only five men before her. A world-class athlete by any standard, during her career she not only won three Olympic medals (Gold, Silver and Bronze in Paris, 1924), but shattered a number of long-distance swimming records formerly held by men, some of which stood for more than two decades.
I first encountered the Late Ms. Ederle in a book given to me by my father when I was about 8 or 9 years old, "100 Greatest Sports Heroes", a biographical compilation of the most noteworthy athletes of the first half of the 20th Century. Along with Ederle, this was where I first learned about such legendary sports figures as Jim Thorpe, Roy Campenella, George Gipp, Babe Didrikson, Bob Cousy, George Mikan, Bronco Nagurski, Gar Wood, and a host of others, many of whom are probably now only footnotes in the annals of professional sports. I still have the book, one of the few relics to have survived from my childhood.
Although I'm not exactly big on sports in general, it's still interesting to go back to it ever once in a while. The entries, penned by notable sports writers of the day (including the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer Sports Editor, Royal Broughm -- the one that little street between our two mega-stadiums is named for), paint a portrait of an earlier, decidedly more innocent period in our nation's adolescence, when victory against adversity or overwhelming odds was considered its own reward.
One of the great things about this book is that it includes luminaries from a wide array of sporting activities, far beyond "the big three" of football/baseball/basketball; jockeys, wrestlers, rowers, boat racers, even a bowler. The other thing that always struck me about it was its obvious color-blindedness. Jackie Robinson, the first black to play in professional baseball shares space with Ty Cobb, one of the most notorious racists the game ever knew. John L. Sullivan, the great irish brawler is recognized alongside Sugar Ray Robinson, possibly the most intelligent boxer ever to step into a ring. Thorpe, a Native American and perhaps the greatest all-round athlete this nation has ever produced has his legendary achievements held far above the relatively minor scandal that stripped him of his Olympic gold medals in both the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon (restored in 1982). And then there are the notable women such as Ederle, whose accomplishments rivaled those of their male counterparts.
Most of the athletes included in the book never made huge piles of money; no shoe endorsement contracts, no multi-million dollar annual salaries, in fact, many weren't even what we would consider "professional" by contemporary standards. They were for the most part, simply people who thrived on physical challenge, and who accepted victory and defeat with equanimity, poise and dignity. In this modern era of the pampered, spoiled, overpaid, media annointed sports superstar, these now mostly forgotten athletes represent what is perhaps today a nearly unobtainable ideal -- that victory is as much about exceeding ones own physical and mental limitations, as it is about beating ones opponent.
on 10:25 AM