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NY To Highlands Swim A Tribute To Olympian Gertrude Ederle

By Matt Lynch
PHOTO COURTESY ANTONIO LIMA
SANDY HOOK - It was hot last Friday and Tammy van Wisse went for a swim.

The Australian dove off a boat at Brooklyn's Battery Park and headed south. Paddling along at 80 to 90 strokes per minute the 38-year-old motivational speaker and corporate spokeswoman dodged both thunderstorms and a massive Chinese freighter. She broke out her backstroke to get a better view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

She broke a world record.

In 1925, Gertrude Caroline Ederle swam the 22 miles from Battery Park to Sandy Hook in seven hours and 11 minutes. Ederle's record stood for 81 years. But the record is hers no more.

As the cliché goes, records are made to be broken and van Wisse arrived ashore at Sandy Hook's north beach some two hours faster than her hero at five hours, six minutes and 47.5 seconds.

Three boats and a kayaker monitored van Wisse's every stroke. Now and then, van Wisse ate an energy bar or drank some water. Her fingertips began to shrivel and take on a white hue, like a child left in the bathtub too long.

Hours passed and the miles piled up, eventually revealing the hundreds of spectators lining Sandy Hook's north beach. As van Wisse's white-capped head approached the shore, it became evident that everyone was witnessing a world record not just being broken but soundly rewritten. "Tammy, Tammy, Tammy," the crowd chanted in unison as she approached.

Wearing a black one-piece bathing suit and a white cap, van Wisse flexed for the cameras and jogged along the shore waving to her support crew bobbing out at sea.

"I've accomplished a lot of things over the years, but this swim will have a special place in my heart," van Wisse said at a ceremony on the beach. "One of the reasons for that is because I did this swim today for a lady who is an icon in her sport."

Before there was Mia Hamm, Annika Sorenstam or even Babe Didrickson, there was Gertrude Ederle. A pioneer in sport, Ederle's record-setting swim across the English Channel in 1926 cast a resounding blow to supposed male athletic superiority. Only five men had ever crossed the channel under their own power prior to Ederle's achievement. Ederle didn't simply struggle across; she set the new world record. In a fitting piece of symmetry, Ederle beat the previous record by over two hours. Over the course of her career Ederle set many records. At the 1924 summer Olympics, she won a gold medal as part of the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay. Ederle won two bronze medals as well that year.

Ederle's Highlands's connection is strong. A contingent of local officials including Free­holder and Highlands Council­woman Anna Little, Highlands Garden Club President Marcia Shaya and Highlands Business Partnership President Carla Cefalo-Braswell attended Friday's event.

Though Ederle's family hailed from New York City, they maintained a vacation home in the area, and she learned to swim in the bay. According to accounts Ederle's mother tied her to a piece of rope and taught her to paddle in the bay waters.

Three years ago, the borough renamed a park after Ederle. The garden club was instrumental in this effort. Though she attended that ceremony, Ederle died just months later at 97-years-old.

As van Wisse pointed out Friday, much has changed since Ederle made her swim to Sandy Hook. For starters, Ederle didn't wear goggles. On her swim across the English Channel, Ederle coated herself in lard and petroleum jelly to help stave off hypothermia, van Wisse did not utilize pig fat. She does extol the virtues of energy bars.

Fourteen members of Ederle's extended family attended van Wisse's NYC to NJ World Record Swim. Ederle's nephew, Bob Ederle of the Bronx, spoke at a ceremony afterwards.

"My Aunt Trudy would have been very proud of her today," Ederle said. "She probably would have said, ‘young lady you were magnificent'." The support of the family touched both van Wisse and her fiancé, Chris McHattie. "They're the most wonderful people," McHattie said. "To embrace it like that is wonderful."

Speaking of his Aunt's swim from the city to Sandy Hook, Bob Ederle said it was a "midnight frolic" and a "warm-up" for her later swim across the channel. In many ways, last Friday's challenge did not push van Wisse to her physical limits, either. For example, over a period of 106 days in 2001, she swam the entire length of Australia's Murray River: 2,438 kilometers. Since she began marathon swimming in 1986, van Wisse has earned a number of world records including the fastest time across the length of Scotland's Loch Ness.

For van Wisse this swim had more to do with honoring her hero than testing the limits of her stamina. "I'm just thrilled to be able to follow in the footsteps of Gertrude today," she said.