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Daisy Ridley’s ‘Young Woman and the Sea’ gives New York sports hero Gertrude Ederle her due

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Perspective washed over Daisy Ridley as she surfaced from the Black Sea.

The actress had just completed a 500-foot swim, her longest during the production of her new movie “Young Woman and the Sea,” in which she portrays Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel.

“I swam for as long as I could and popped up, and that was how we ended the shoot,” Ridley recalled to the Daily News. “I thought, ‘Wow, I feel so proud of myself after a couple minutes of swimming.’ This woman did this for hours. It’s still unbelievable to me what she did, because even a piece of it was so challenging.”

The biopic dives into theaters Friday, nearly a century after the New York City-born Ederle finished the 21-mile swim from France to England on Aug. 6, 1926.

Nicknamed the Queen of the Waves, Ederle overcame both the channel’s treacherous conditions and the inequality facing female athletes of her era to immortalize herself as one of New York’s great sports heroes.

She needed only 14 hours and 31 minutes to clear the channel. That was faster than any of the five men who completed the swim before her, including the previous record-holder, Enrique Tirabocchi, who took 16 hours and 33 minutes three years earlier.

But as the decades passed, Ederle’s triumph largely faded from public consciousness.

“I was baffled by that,” Joachim Rønning, who directed the film, told The News. “How come I don’t know this story? The more I talked about it with people around me, nobody really knew this story. Nobody knew about Trudy Ederle. For me, it became almost like an obligation to retell this story and put Trudy back on the map.”

The daughter of German immigrants, Ederle grew up on the Upper West Side but learned to swim in Highlands, N.J., where her family owned a summer home. It was in that beachfront borough that Ederle became introduced to the Women’s Swimming Association, which trained her and her sisters.

Despite a childhood case of measles that damaged her hearing, Ederle established herself as a world-class swimmer well before she tackled the channel. She set 29 U.S. and world records from 1921-25, including seven in Brighton Beach.

Gertrude Ederle is pictured in the sea at Brighton on July 2, 1925, during training for her cross English Channel swim. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

One of Ederle’s world records came in the 150-meter event, which she set during the Olympic trials before the 1924 Summer Games in Paris. That performance proved vital, considering the cash-strapped American Olympic Committee favored men’s sports and was liable to cut down the women’s swimming team, according to Glenn Stout’s 2009 book, also titled “Young Woman and the Sea,” that inspired the movie.

Ederle went on to win the Olympic gold in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay that year, along with bronze medals in the 100-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle.

The English Channel represented a greater challenge. Known for its frigid, jellyfish-infested waters and its poor visibility, the channel was prone to fast-changing currents that were impossible to predict with 1920s technology.

Ederle was unsuccessful in her first attempt, making it 14 miles on Aug. 18, 1925.

“To swim the channel at any time is a huge challenge,” said Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, a silver medalist in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2016 Olympics, who trained Ridley for the movie.

“You have to be so, so fit to be able to take on that amount of distance. It would have required a huge amount of training,” continued O’Connor, who competed for Great Britain. “Fourteen hours of swimming non-stop. No breaks. You can’t touch any sort of vessel or boat. You’re constantly battling the elements without rest.”

For her second try, Ederle turned to Bill Burgess, who swam the channel in 1911, to train her. Helping Ederle fund the attempt was a contract from the Daily News and the Chicago Tribune Press Service in exchange for her exclusive story.

Her historic swim was likely longer than 21 miles in real distance, as brutal conditions that day prevented Ederle from following a straight route. On Aug. 7, 1926, The News dedicated its full front page to Ederle’s unprecedented accomplishment.

Gertude Ederle is pictured on the cover of the Daily News on Aug. 7, 1926.
Gertude Ederle is pictured on the cover of the Daily News on Aug. 7, 1926.

“Here it is several hours since I have accomplished the ambition of my life as a swimmer and I am rather at a loss for words to tell what I have been able to do or how I did it,” Ederle wrote in the Aug. 8 edition of The News. “I, frankly, am more than a little dazed by my success and by the abuse I took from the roughest sea I have ever encountered for any considerable length of time.”

Ederle completed the swim using the American Crawl, a stroke similar to the modern-day front crawl. Ridley’s preparation for the film included learning Ederle’s technique, which required three months of training before production began in April 2022.

The London-born Ridley was no stranger to rigorous preparation, having gone through it for her starring role as Rey in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy. Mastering swimming was another force entirely.

“I remember [O’Connor] saying to me at the beginning, ‘There is no way to supplement swimming without swimming,’” Ridley, 32, said. “We were swimming during filming and swimming to train in the weekends and the evenings, and then the big swim was at the end of the film. That was, mentally, probably the biggest challenge, because you just don’t know what it’s going to be until you’re there.”

Adding to the challenge was Rønning’s decision to shoot the film’s English Channel sequences in open water. The cast and crew captured those scenes over nine days along the Bulgarian coast.

“It was important for me to be out on the ocean and do this as real as possible,” Rønning said. “When we spoke early on, I said, ‘I don’t want to be in a tank. I want to be out there in the elements,’ and Daisy was so game to do that. … Never complaining, always going for it, lips blue and channeling Trudy Ederle.”

Daisy Ridley during production of YOUNG WOMAN AND THE SEA. Photo courtesy of Joachim Rønning. © 2024 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Daisy Ridley is pictured during production of “Young Woman and the Sea.” Photo courtesy of Joachim Rønning. © 2024 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ederle’s time remained the standard for female swimmers until 1950, when Florence Chadwick, also an American, swam the English Channel in under 13 ½ hours.

“Trudy paved the way for women’s swimming, but also women’s sport,” O’Connor said. “The trailblazers in women’s sport were so important to encourage women and young girls to … know these things are achievable. Just being told that you can’t do something, and saying, ‘No, actually I can,’ it’s such a powerful message.”

New York City celebrated Ederle’s English Channel conquest with a ticker-tape parade attended by an estimated two million people. President Calvin Coolidge hailed her “America’s best girl” and invited her to the White House. The International Swimming Hall of Fame inducted Ederle in 1965, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 2003.

Ederle died in Wyckoff, N.J., in 2003 at age 98.

“I believe her legacy is one of someone that did something groundbreaking,” Ridley said, “and did it at a time where it seemed impossible.”

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