If you are seeking a good book to help pass the cold, dark days, or wondering about holiday gifts for your favorite swimmers, I present to you a suggestion. Lisa Bier’s Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870-1926 (MacFarland, 2011; paperback, 220 pages) gives the story behind the story of the famous swim accomplishments of the 1920s, most notably Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking, stereotype-smashing English Channel crossing.
My knowledge of open water swim history has progressed in reverse order. When I took to the Hudson in the early 2000s, I knew that I was part of a wave of swimmers enjoying less-toxic waters thanks to the Clean Water Act. A swim buddy lent me Diana Nyad’s Other Shores, and from that I learned about training sans goggles and the 1970s marathon swim scene. Like Nyad, I was unaware of her forebears. A trio of new works published during my own marathon swim heyday enlightened me: Tim Dahlberg’s America’s Girl, Glenn Stout’s Young Woman and the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim. All paint a rich picture of the 1920s and its leading swimmers, particularly the women. Reading these, you realize how sidelined our sport has become.
Like all great historical movements and figures, Ederle and the 1920s swim craze did not emerge from a vacuum. Bier’s book fills in the backstory. Our great city, I learned, was at the forefront of men’s and women’s swimming for more than 50 years, both in the pool and in open water. Bath houses, floating baths, and Ys (both Christian and Jewish) are all part of the story, evolving along with the fashions and “swim costumes” of the times. New Yorkers were swimming under the Brooklyn Bridge, down the Hudson, through Hell Gate, and off Staten Island in droves during the early 20th century, charting courses we are rediscovering today. Organizations supported first water safety and then competition, building an audience and a field for the eventual Olympic debut of women’s swimming.
Bier presents a trove of stories and photos that bring to life the camaraderie, rivalries, and intrepidness of this bygone era. We owe these pioneering swimmers–and her–our admiration and gratitude. We’ve come a long way, and yet we still have plenty to learn from looking back.