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What for?

Of all the things I learned from my mother perhaps the thing I cherish most is her love of reading.Throughout my childhood I remember my mom reading, constantly. She still does. And while my available time for reading goes in cycles, there is always a book on my nightstand, always at least one book that I'm escaping too or learning from.

My mom's genre of choice is mystery while I tend to be more eclectic, this week diving into a literary classic the next into some mindless (but entertaining) chick lit. I also tend to gravitate toward certain types of nonfiction, including topics pertaining to female athletes and women's sports.

Enter Gertrude Ederle.

I have been fascinated by Ederle for some time in large part because I could find nothing much written about her other than a cursory biographical sketch.

That was puzzling since Ederle was the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel.

So recently I was jumping for joy (and yes, literally, I did jump for joy) when I found a book about Ederle and her crossing of the English Channel.

She was incredibly famous in early 1920s America. I mean incredibly famous. She toured the country to put on swimming shows with some of her American rivals and teammates and for two years only lost one race. Every time she got in the water she set, or came close to setting, a new world record. She was so good, it was almost boring.

Then came the 1926 Paris Olympics. She won three medals -- a gold as part of a relay team and two bronze in her individual events.

The rest of America was caught up in the success of the entire American team and barely noticed that Ederle had underperformed.

But what was she to do? She was 15 and her swimming career was over.

With the urging of her older sister, she decided to tackle the Channel.

After one unsuccessful attempt, she managed to become not only the first woman to make the dangerous and complicated crossing but bested the record set by a man by two hours.

And with that, she helped change the face of women's athletics in American culture

Poorly handled contracts and sponsorship deals after her success let Ederle fade away from the American sporting conscious rather quickly.

But she opened doors for women athletes and opened eyes in the seemingly endless debate of whether women are suited for athletic competition.

Still, the most compelling part of her story for me is her loss at the Olympics.

Had she won three gold medals she might never have decided to swim the English Channel. The accounts of her crossing never mention the failure as motivation. She wasn't thinking about the bronze medals while she was in the cold Channel waters. It wasn't necessarily an insult that drove her to train and succeed.

It was, however, a disappointing event that led her to a greater opportunity.

Because sometimes when we think things have gone all wrong, they've really gone all right. We just can't see the ending right now.

During her successful attempt, members of Ederle's team wanted to pull her from the water as a storm began to take hold of the Channel. Someone yelled to her to get out of the water.

She yelled back "What for?"

Thanks to newspaper reports, "what for?" became a popular catch-phrase of the 1920.

And as I prepare for my first marathon on Sunday, I'll ask myself the same question.

What for?

Only I need to know that answer.

And then just keep moving forward.

Just like Ederle.

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