Daisy Ridley trained for months to play first woman to swim English Channel


close up of Daisy Ridley in swim cap with grease on her face
Enlarge / Daisy Ridley stars as Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle in The Young Woman and the Sea.

Walt Disney Studios

In August 1926, American champion swimmer Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, completing the 21-mile feat in 14 hours and 34 minutes—a record that would stand until 1950. She was just a few months shy of her 21st birthday. It’s the kind of classic sports story tailor-made for the silver screen, and Disney has obliged with its new biopic The Young Woman and the Sea, starring Daisy Ridley as Ederle.

The daughter of a butcher in Manhattan, Ederle learned to swim in New Jersey and joined the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA) at the age of 12. She quickly excelled at the American crawl stroke, setting the world record in the 880-yard freestyle that same year—the youngest swimmer to do so. She would go on to hold 29 US national and world records between 1921 and 1925. She competed in the 1924 Summer Olympics, winning gold in the 4×100 meter relay and bronze medals in two other individual races.

After her Olympic triumph, Ederle became a professional swimmer, completing the 22 miles between Battery Park to Sandy Hook in 7 hours and 11 minutes in 1925. Her nephew would later describe it as a “warm-up” for swimming the English Channel. The WSA sponsored Ederle’s first attempt that same year, but her trainer, Jabez Wolffe, ordered her pulled from the water, disqualifying the attempt. Ederle was angry about that decision and found a new coach in Bill Burgess for her second attempt. This time she succeeded and was rewarded with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan with some 2 million people cheering her on.

Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel in August 1926.
Enlarge / Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel in August 1926.

Public domain

Ederle tried to capitalize on her renown, making a cameo in the 1927 silent romantic comedy Swim Girl, Swim and joining the vaudeville circuit but did not meet with much financial success, further exacerbated by the Great Depression. After injuring her spine in a fall, she was bedridden for several years. She was almost entirely deaf by the 1940s due to a childhood bout with measles and spent some time teaching deaf children to swim. Ederle died in 2003 at the age of 98.

Directed by Joachim Rønning (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Tron: Ares)The Young Woman and the Sea focuses on Ederle’s early life, culminating with her successful Channel swim. The role naturally required Ridley to undertake extensive swim training for several months and throughout the filming in Bulgaria, although she already knew how to swim. Preparing her for that task fell to Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, a British champion swimmer whose many accolades include winning a silver medal in the 200m individual medley at the 2016 Rio Olympics—just 0.3 seconds shy of the gold and the first British woman to medal in the event.



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