Thursday, June 19, 2008

America's Champion Swimmer

All three of my children are on the summer swim team at our local lake. It is a fun and healthy, family friendly summer activity. Yesterday was the first practice of the season and the first practice ever for my youngest son. Last night was the perfect opportunity to read one of our family's favorite picture books, America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle by David A. Adler and illustrated by Terry Widener. To be honest, this would be the perfect book to read on the first day of any new challenge or to inspire a new challenge.

Born in New York City in 1906, Gertrude Ederle did not learn to swim until she was seven years old. After she nearly drowned as a child, her father was determined to teach her. At first, he tied a rope around her stomach, held onto the other end and put her in a river. She took to the sport, to say the least. She won her first big competitive race at the age of fifteen. She won three medals at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. At this point in the book, in addition to enjoying captivating illustrations, my children have absorbed some important lessons. The first is that she didn't learn to swim until she was seven and didn't compete until she was a teenager, but that did not hold her back. The climate around kid's sports today is so hyper competitive that kids are "specializing" by age seven and have personal coaches and trainers by ten.

Gertrude's story gets even better. By 1925, she decided to take on the ultimate swimming challenge at the time- to swim the twenty mile wide English Channel. Only five men and no women had made it all the way across. Here are some more lessons in the book: geography and setting goals for oneself. She failed in her first attempt, but tried again on August 6, 1926. Adler's book shows Margaret, Gertrude's sister, greasing her up before the swim to protect her from the icy water. It also shows the encouraging "This way, Ole Kid" and an arrow pointing to England that Margaret chalked on the side of the tugboat which accompanied Gertrude on her more than fourteen hour swim. The illustrations and details of her sister's support are tremendously moving to me.

In the end, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel, fighting rain, wind, and a strong current, in fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes, beating the men's record by almost two hours. Although there was no Nike or Gatorade endorsement waiting for her, Gertrude did receive a ticker tape parade, joyously depicted by Widener's painting, and much praise from common folks and dignitaries alike.
America's Champion Swimmer is a beautiful and inspiring book. Adler and Widener also teamed up on Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man which also delivers a story of American history, personal heroism and athletic greatness.

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