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The Great Swim By Gavin Mortimer

Release date: 14th May, 2008
Publisher: Short Books

List Price: 14.99
Our Price: 10.49
You Save: 4.5 (30%)
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The Great Swim
By Gavin Mortimer price: £10.49, saving 30% on rrp

As every schoolboy used to know, in August 1875, Captain Matthew Webb became the first man to swim the Channel in a time of 21 hours 45 minutes. According to several sources, such was the zig-zag nature of Webb's Herculean effort and the effect of notorious tides that he actually swam an estimated 50 miles into the record books.

It was more than fifty years before a woman successfully completed the journey unaided when a 19-year-old New Yorker named Gertrude Ederle swam from Cap Griz-Nez to Kingsdown in fourteen and a half hours. Such was the stormy weather in August 1926 that Miss Ederle too swam considerably longer than the straight-as-a-crow 21 miles between France and England (an estimated 35 miles), although unlike Captain Webb, she briefly enjoyed incredible fame in her own country.

Upon return to the States, she was given a ticker-tape welcome, she met President Calvin Coolidge, had a dance named after her and played herself in a movie, Swim, Girl, Swim. She died aged 98 in 2003.

Gavin Mortimer has done a marvellous job in telling the story of a sporting phenomenon that gripped newspaper audiences on either side of the Atlantic during the summer of 1926. Aside from Ederle (making her second attempt at swimming the Channel), a petite young lady from Baltimore, Lillian Cannon and two others, Clarabelle Barrett and Danish-born Mille Gade, were desperate to become the first female to successfully complete this enormous challenge.

Both Ederle and Cannon were sponsored by newspaper barons who appreciated each woman's photogenic attributes and used increasingly titillating photographs of them in their respective papers to drive circulation. By contrast, Barrett and Gade had to make do with paying their own way, staying in run-down boarding houses in Dover as they trained and waited for weather conditions to improve.

At the beginning of August, Barrett felt the time was right and came within an ace of becoming the first woman to complete the swim, but she had to abandon her effort after 22 hours at sea, defeated by an impenetrable fog. All four women contended with sea-sickness, incredible tidal drifts, cramp and the growing threat of steam ships, perils that Ederle eventually overcame just a week after Barrett was forced to turn back.

Using an innovative stroke, she actually smashed the male record by an astonishing two hours and her phenomenal effort made her the world's most famous woman, but here Ederle's tale took an unfortunate turn. Despite being feted upon her return to the States, her agent failed to secure the type of long-term contracts that would have capitalised upon her status and a few weeks after her swim, Mille Gade became the first mother to conquer the Channel.

Mortimer has successfully intertwined the story behind each woman's attempt, their arduous preparation, their respective pain and that of their supporters, often to be seen in rowing boats belting out songs to raise the swimmers' spirits. The effect makes for a thoroughly compelling read. Of course, only one woman could emerge as the first to swim the Channel, but the author has ensured that the efforts of all four to achieve this remarkable sporting feat will never be forgotten.

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