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Gertrude Erdele (Vimeo)
Gertrude Erdele (Vimeo)

Long game

The grueling sport in which women competitors typically outperform the men

By WITW Staff on September 18, 2016

One thing that has fascinated scientists, sports fans and data geeks alike is the idea of women outperforming men — at the highest level — in a given sport. Three decades ago, it was predicted that by the year 2000, the best women marathon runners would pull even with the best male marathoners. As of 2016, that prediction has not come true, and scientists now think it never will.

But is there another sport out there where the top women performers are better than the top male performers? Turns out, there just may be, though it hasn’t been so obvious to those who’ve shown a curiosity in the idea. In the 1920s, U.S. ultra endurance swimmer Gertrude Erdele became the first woman to swim the English Channel. When she completed the swim, she not only accomplished a feat for the female gender, she also shattered the existing record — by two hours. She was 20 at the time and below you can watch footage of the remarkable achievement.

Erdele’s record-breaking swim occurred nearly a century ago, but it serves as a clue about women outperforming men. Currently, the world record-holder for swimming the English Channel is a man, and that’s a trend that’s largely true of the elite ultra distance swimmers: Men are still a little faster than women when a broad set of data is analyzed. But beneath the elite class, women swimmers are pretty easily outperforming the men. Steven Munatones, one of the world’s top experts on open-water swimming, looked at 135 years of English Channel swimmers’ times. What he found was that “the average female time was 33 minutes faster than the average male time,” Munatones told New York magazine The Science of Us blog. “The average male time — that’s every successful English Channel swimmer — was a little over 13 hours. That means that the average woman finished over one mile faster than the average man,” he said.

So, why are women typically better than men at the grueling sport of ultra-distance swimming? There are several theories cited, including physiological differences in the male and female bodies and the nature of the sport itself.

Read the full story at New York magazine.


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