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New Disney movie is based on a book by Vermont author Glenn Stout

Daisy Ridley as Trudy Ederle in Disney’s live-action "Young Woman and the Sea."
Disney/Disney Enterprises
Daisy Ridley as Trudy Ederle in Disney’s live-action "Young Woman and the Sea."

In 1926, a 20-year-old American woman named Trudy Ederle became the first woman to swim the English channel — a 14-hour, 21-mile feat of resilience and strength.

Vermont author Glenn Stout immortalized Ederle in his 2009 book “Young Woman and the Sea.” His book was picked up by Disney, and a feature-length film starring Daisy Ridley will be available to stream and in select theaters on May 31.

Stout is also a writing coach, ghostwriter, editor, and sportswriter. He joined Vermont Edition to discuss Ederle's story and what it’s like to have a book adapted for film.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Who was Trudy Ederle? How did you first learn about her?

Trudy Ederle was the child of German immigrants. She grew up in New York City. She had measles when she was young and was partially deaf. And she found herself swimming. That's where she was most comfortable. And I came across her story while I was researching another book, and I stumbled across headlines mentioning Trudy Ederle, and talking about how she was the first woman to swim the Channel. She was not only the first woman, but she beat the existing men's record by two hours when she did. And I thought to myself, why don't I know who she is? Why have I never heard of her? And so I started researching the story. That was back in 2001. The book was finally published in 2009. And here we are, you know, more than a decade later, and it's finally a film. So it's been a really long journey.

She was a woman swimming at a time when there weren't a lot of women athletes, for one, and there just weren't a lot of women swimmers, right?

Very few women knew how to swim. In fact, there had been a disaster in New York around the turn of the century, a boat named "Slocum" had burned and nearly 1500 people were killed. Most of them were women, mostly because they didn't know how to swim, but some of them drowned in water that, had they only stood up, they would have survived. And that sparked a movement to teach women how to swim — and a group called the Women's Swimming Association. Trudy's mother put Trudy and her sister into the women's swimming association so they could learn how to swim, and they started to compete. They were among the first female swimmers to compete. And Trudy was remarkable. At one point she held virtually every world record you could hold in swimming at the time, from 25 yards, all the way up to the English Channel. That would be like Michael Phelps, also swimming in the English Channel.

There was an innovation too — she started swimming freestyle breaststroke.

Right. her coach was one of the pioneers of the freestyle stroke, and Trudy mastered it, she was really the first person to use the stroke to swim the English Channel. And that changed how everyone swam the channel from that time on. Hardly anybody used the breaststroke to try to go across the channel. Now they looked at Trudy and said, Oh, my gosh, look what we can do, you know, using that stroke. Her record for women, she held that record for almost 25 years. It was that long before another woman could learn to swim faster than she could.

What were some of the challenges that she faced in her life?

A lot of people didn't think women should compete in sports at all. And you know, there was a lot of resistance to that. And she had to overcome that and her coach had to overcome that. And then also, you know, when she got over there, she tried twice, and the first time she tried, she was probably poisoned by her coach, who at what her coach, her first trainer to cross the channel. He had quite a cottage industry going training people to swim the channel, and in all likelihood, he poisoned her and forwarded her first attempt. She was in the water for about six hours and then she felt ill and was pulled out. So when she went back the second time, she was adamant no one was going to touch her No one was going to take her out of the water. And she had a different coach a different trainer for that.

Why would he poison his own trainee?

Because he was training a lot of swimmers, once a woman made it across, a lot of other women would have stopped trying. So if he could keep women in the water, he was going to make some more money. She had to overcome that she also had to overcome just the the social distance of being someone who was partially deaf. She really overcame a lot. And not to mention just the challenge of being in the water for over 14 hours.

When you were doing your research, what did you learn about the physical toll that it would take on your body and your mind?

it's incredibly tough. I mean, for one, you have to go in and you're covered with lanolin, and various oils because of chafing, and to help protect yourself against jellyfish. And then there's the monotony of doing the same thing for 14 hours. She would sing to herself, and a lot of marathoners know what that's like. But then also the conditions of the water. The English Channel waters are very cold, the tides are linear, they rush one way, and then they rush the other way. So you can't go straight across, you have to go in kind of a zigzag pattern. So even though it's 21 miles across, you end up swimming a lot more than that. The weather was fine when she started, but there was a storm midway through so she's swimming in waves, four and five feet high. And then just before she reaches the coast, she gets pushed into what is known as the Goodwin Sands, which is a shallow area, and the boat that accompanied her couldn't follow her through the Goodwin Sands. So after about 10 hours in the water, she's on her own for over an hour swimming totally by herself in the middle of the night.

Oh my gosh. Terrifying.

Absolutely. And she's 20 years old, right?

Did you get in contact with any of her family members while you were researching her life?

I've been in contact with them for the last couple of years. I approached them when I first did the book and they didn't want to be involved. But they've since reached out and they're very supportive of the film and I'm in touch with a number of them right now.

Where do they live?

One of her nieces I think lives in White River Junction. They're they're all over the country. She had no children herself. So it's mostly nephews and nieces and grandnieces and grandnephews.

How did Trudy Ederle handle her fame when she completed this monumental accomplishment?

if somebody did something similar today, of course, they would embrace celebrityhood and be all over the place and you'd get sick of seeing them. Trudy wasn't wired that way. She didn't embrace celebrityhood and didn't like the spotlight that much. So after she swam, she did a few things. She appeared in a silent film. And she did did vaudeville. But she was a private person, she sort of sort of withdrew. And that's why we don't know about her. That's why we didn't she didn't remain in the public eye. Because she just wasn't that kind of type of person. She was private, and she enjoyed her life.

How long did the movie adaptation process take?

It was nine years ago that I received an email from Jeff Nathanson, the screenwriter, wanting to know if the move if the book was available for option. So it's been nine years since, and then we were with two other studios that ended up dropping it. Swimming the channel is a great metaphor for making a movie because we were very close to shore a couple of times. And then the tide changed and we were out in the middle of the water again. But everybody persevered. Everybody was really dedicated to the story. Everybody is involved in the picture. I just thought the Trudy story needed to be known by more people. It's such an inspiration. It's such a great lesson.

What was it like to see this story become taken under the wing of Hollywood? Were there any elements where you're like, Gosh, I really hope they hold on to this part or Oh, no, what if they fictionalize this too much?

I knew going into it that you're working in a different medium. So changes are going to be made. I was fine with that because the changes that are made were intentional and purposeful. I can spend 10 pages in a book making a point in a film, you have to make that sometimes in three or four seconds. So there are some deviations from from the book. But what's important is Trudy's character is absolutely the same. The swim is rendered, you know, accurately. And just as important or even more important, the relationship she has with her family, namely, her sister, which is a core of the book is also central to the movie. So I was thrilled to see all that comes in also the attention to detail in the film is terrific. It looks like it's 1926. You know, it's quite remarkable to finally be able to see some of the things that I could only imagine when I was writing. Yeah.

Did you get to get a little peek behind the curtain at how they did some of that?

I was on set in Bulgaria for a week where during filming. Who knew that Bulgaria had one of the biggest film studios in Europe? They used the Black Sea for the water sequences, and Daisy Ridley is remarkable. She does virtually all of her own swimming. And she had to train for three months with a former Olympic swimmer because she wasn't a very good swimmer, she's become a great swimmer. And you know, they were very dedicated to doing it real. They didn't want to CGI the water and all that stuff. So what you see is Daisy in the water, doing all of her own swimming.

The film was originally only set to have a streaming release, but it's now going to have a limited theatrical release after scoring well with test audiences. What did it feel like to find out that news?

That was terrific. Even when I was over in Bulgaria, they were saying, 'We think this is really good. We think we're going to try to go theatrical with it.' Then when they did the test screenings, producer Jerry Bruckheimer said it scored better than any of his movies ever had. I think Jerry's words meant a lot to Disney when he said we need to go in the theaters with this. And it's also getting a theatrical release overseas, it's going to be in China. It's in the UK, in Ireland. And I wish it was in Burlington. But, maybe, it'll do so well. It'll get here sooner or later, but it will be streaming later in the summer, so everyone will get a chance to see it.

And you're fresh off a trip to LA for the premiere?

That's right. I was in Los Angeles last week for the premiere, got to walk the red carpet to the press line, go to the after party, and most importantly, see the film with everyone who was involved in the film, which was just terrific to see.

Do you have the bug now? Are you going to be moving out to LA to do screenwriting?

I don't think I can afford the wardrobe.

You've had Trudy Ederle's story so close to you for so many years. What do you hope audiences most take away from her story?

I think it's a consequential story, meaning that I think somebody can see this, particularly a younger woman or a younger man, and realize that women can do things that you might not think they could. I mean, that was the issue back then. It's still an issue today where people underestimate what women can do. And there's a great lesson there of perseverance, and that you can try anything. And if you stick with it, there are no barriers. And I think that's a great lesson, particularly for younger people to take away because the movie is appropriate for all ages, you know, and I'm just happy that, you know, maybe it'll change someone's life in some false some small way. Maybe in some significant way.

Broadcast live on Thursday, May 23, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.