Gertrude was born in 1905 in New York and became a competitive swimmer at a young age. At just 13, she joined and began training at the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA), and soon she had broken and established more amateur records than any other woman around the world.
In 1924, she won a gold medal with the 400-meter freestyle relay team, and bronze medals for the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle events at the Olympics in Paris, France. She was disappointed by her third-place wins, since she was favored to win gold in all events, so she looked for new challenges. In 1925, she crossed the Lower New York Bay in just over seven hours, a distance of 21 miles. Then, later in the year, she made her first attempt to swim the English Channel, but her trainer pulled her out before she could finish.
Undaunted, she made her next attempt starting from France on the morning of August 6, 1926. Sometime around hour 12, someone on one of the tugboats following her became concerned about the weather and choppy waves and shouted to her, “Gertie, you must come out!” She replied, “What for?” She stepped onto the English shore 22.5 miles and 14 hours and 39 minutes after her first stroke, beating the men’s record by nearly two hours. Her record held until 1950. At 21, she had become the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Back home in New York City, Gertrude was celebrated with a ticker-tape parade. “Queen of the Waves,” the press called her. She had brief career in entertainment, including playing herself in the 1927 movie Swim Girl, Swim. After the hoopla quieted, she devoted herself to teaching deaf children how to swim. She herself had suffered from hearing problems due to a childhood bout with measles, which left her completely deaf by 1940. She passed away at 98 in 2003.
“People said women couldn’t swim the Channel,” Gertrude said in 1930, “but I proved they could.”
Indeed she did.
Kathleen Guthrie is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She continues to find inspiration in the stories of many of our “cheroes” (heroes who are childfree).