In 1926 Gertrude Ederle, a 19 year old New Yorker, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. She did it in record time, faster than any of the five men who had swum the Channel before her. Although that feat is little more than the answer to a trivia question today, at the time it was an accomplishment that rated a huge parade through Manhattan. She was treated as a heroine, at least until Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic three years later.
The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer tells Ederle's story and the media frenzy surrounding it. There were three other American women competing to become the first woman to swim the Channel that year, as well as the man who broke Ederle's record only three weeks after Ederle set it. What is most interesting is the role of the press in reporting, in making these historic events. Ederle and another of the swimmers were under contract to write regular newspaper columns about their preparations. Some newspapers sponsored one or more of the swimmers. They reported daily on the swimmers, and included lots of photos of the swimmers in their swimsuits. It had only been a few years since bathing costumes for women had included sleeves and stockings. The new one-piece form-fitting swimsuits of the twenties were the bee's knees. Incidentally, Ederle developed what may have been the first bikini, using men's swimming shorts and a modified bra. Shortly after she started the record-setting swim, she chucked the bra and swam the Channel topless.
Mortimer covers the preparations, the swim itself, which was quite dramatic, and the aftermath. Ederle was treated as a conquering hero, then as an accused cheater, and then as a traveling show curiosity. If anyone thinks the media frenzies of today are new, they need only read The Great Swim to see that they are only carrying on a tradition as old as the press itself.