Book Review: The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer

The Great Swim, written by Gavin Mortimer grabbed my attention of the shelves of the library in the sports section.

This book is one of the few non-fiction books I have read this year.  It tells in great detail the story of four women who in 1926 all attempted to swim the English Channel.

I found the story of the women to be fascinating in so many ways.  Mortimer describes the “flapper era” of the roaring twenties so well, and describes how the status of women was changing rapidly in that time.  At the time that Gertrude Ederle and Mille Gade succeeded in swimming the channel there were no wetsuits to help conserve body heat and the typical bathing costume for ladies looked something like this:

As you can imagine,  this is not exactly the peak of efficiency for swimming about in the ocean.

Goggles were not mass produced, and to really be made waterproofed they had to be sealed by the swimmer using a variety of materials.  Most synthetic materials that we are used to and attached to such as plastics and spandex were not yet created!

So, The swimming of the Channel by a woman was not only a great athletic feat, but also a step forward in the “women’s lib” movement that was so popular in the 1970’s.

In addition to addressing the advancement of women and the interesting choices of bathing gear that Ederle and Gade had decided on:

which ended up being some sort of bikini, and being covered in 3 layers of grease….

Mortimer also captured, without I think knowing it, some of the common thought processes of athletes involved in endurance pursuits.   Through thorough research he seems to have been able to capture my exact thought process during some long runs….and though I thought it was actually thoughts only I had, I am starting to see that many many endurance athletes have had similar thoughts mid run/swim/ski….  It was amazing to me to see these thoughts in print!

Mortimer then follows the women after the swim and describes what became of these extraordinary women who set out to make a swim, and really without meaning to became symbols for women’s advancement in all sorts of areas, not just athletics.  (At the time of the 1926 channel swimming season, women were not included in the Olympic Games…).  The descriptions of the “afterwards” also highlights how many times people the very thing that a person desired becomes the very thing that poisons them.

It was difficult for me to write this as a review.  I really enjoyed reading the book and I learned many many things about women in America in the 1920’s!   I do recommend it for anyone who has the least interest in American History, Women’s rights, or sport.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer

    • It was really a good read. the Author had a nice style, and I really liked how he mixed in the women’s movement, with the athletics, so that neither one became heavy handed…
      I definitely am not a channel swimmer!

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