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Channel swimming


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The act of swimming the English Channel, the strip of water separating England and France (in France, La Manche). The idea of crossing a channel is not of course exclusive to this strip of sea, and channel swimming has developed in California, in Santa Barbara and (from 1927) the Catalina Channel; but the English Channel swimming challenge was an early challenge that gripped the popular imagination of the 19th-century public. The first person to swim the English Channel (from England to France) was Matthew (known as Captain) Webb (1848–83), an English merchant seaman who, reported as swimming against dogs as well at times in his youth, swam the Channel on his second attempt in 1875. He was accorded instant heroic status, and made appearances in endurance events. Charles Sprawson writes: ‘Webb's triumphant return to London brought business to a close at the stock exchange, and bonfires illuminated the valleys of his native Shropshire’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004). But Channel swimming had made him a hero without security, and financial needs drove him to attempt to swim downriver beneath the Niagara Falls, where he drowned.

Swimming the Channel could be an international news event. When Gertrude Ederle (1905–2003), 1924 triple Olympic medallist, became the first woman to swim the Channel (from France to England) in 1926, her time of 14 hours 39 minutes broke the men's record by two hours. She was welcomed home to New York with a ticker-tape parade. W. W. McGeehan had anticipated her feat, writing in the New York Herald Tribune:If there is one woman who can make the swim, it is this girl, with the shoulders and back of Jack Dempsey and the frankest and bravest pair of eyes that ever looked into a face. She told me of her last attempt, when she swam for an hour on instinct alone, blinded, deaf, and only half conscious. She remembered only the humour of the trip. This girl keeps her even temper. I felt that I would sooner be in that tug the day she starts than at the ringside of the greatest fight or at the arena of the greatest game in the world, for this, in my opinion, is to be the greatest sports story in the world.In the preparation for the swim, Ederle was actually contracted to the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, which refused access to the tug for writers from other papers, such as McGeehan. After her achievement, Ederle appeared in a movie, and launched an unsuccessful career in entertainment (purportedly mismanaged and defrauded), though a song-and-dance step was named after her. Becoming fully deaf in the 1940s (measles had affected her hearing as a child), she worked thereafter as a swimming teacher to the deaf. Californian Florence May Chadwick (1918–95) was the first woman to make two crossings, in 1951 and 1953, from England to France.

If there is one woman who can make the swim, it is this girl, with the shoulders and back of Jack Dempsey and the frankest and bravest pair of eyes that ever looked into a face. She told me of her last attempt, when she swam for an hour on instinct alone, blinded, deaf, and only half conscious. She remembered only the humour of the trip. This girl keeps her even temper. I felt that I would sooner be in that tug the day she starts than at the ringside of the greatest fight or at the arena of the greatest game in the world, for this, in my opinion, is to be the greatest sports story in the world.

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Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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