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Mercedes Gleitze: Britain’s empowering swimming heroine


Try to imagine living in a period when young women, especially those born into the working classes, were locked into the age-old traditional role of having first to find a husband, and then having to work exclusively in the home - cleaning, cooking and bringing up children.

The boundaries that constrained and gradually stifled any latent talents within them, appeared impenetrable to most. This restriction was reinforced by the government of the day. For example, women were not allowed to vote, own property or even work outside the home if they were married, with the consequential loss of independence.

During the early part of the twentieth century the suffrage movement, led by the courageous Pankhurst womenfolk and their sister suffragettes, was gradually gaining ground in the fight to secure for women an equal place in society. Thanks to their untiring efforts, women were eventually given the right to vote, work outside the home, divorce if they were unhappy, and own property, but the suggestion that they could also, for example, take on managerial roles was still being ridiculed - as was the idea of women taking part in sport.

A young British woman called Mercedes Gleitze was at the forefront of this radical movement in what was a male-dominated world of sport. Born in Brighton in 1900, the youngest daughter of economic immigrants, Mercedes recognised in herself a talent for sea swimming, and made up her mind to turn this inherent gift into what was, in those days, an extraordinary career as a female long-distance swimmer.

The 1920s was a time of heightened achievements by explorers, mountaineers, aviators and the like, and long distance swimming, especially the crossing of the English Channel by a woman, was a prize waiting to be claimed.

Hers wasn’t an over-night success story. It took perseverance. For example, Mercedes made eight formal attempts before becoming the first British woman to conquer the English Channel, and it took her six attempts to become the first person ever to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. Her swims were covered extensively by the media of the day, and she became a role model in the emergence of the ‘new women’ of that era. As a young, working class woman, without influence or financial support, she set up and managed a unique sea career.

The journalists of the day went out in the accompanying boats to cover her sea swims – most of them in waters unchartered by a swimmer. These reports highlight the differences between then and now: pigeon post instead of mobile phones; ham sandwiches and omelettes instead of high energy drinks, just a compass to guide them in dangerous, foggy conditions, with the pilot having to physically listen out for ships’ sirens above the noise of his own engine to avoid being run down, compared to today’s computer-equipped pilot boats - and so on.

Mercedes spoke publicly about wanting to bring honours to the country of her birth by virtue of her swimming achievements, but apart from that she was also one of the first women from the sporting world to institute a charity with the money she earned from her aquatic activities. During her years working as a typist in London, she witnessed at first hand the poverty all around her caused by the high unemployment of the times. She felt a strong empathy with these unfortunate families, and it gave her added motivation to make a success of her swimming career. She planned to use any prize money to help at least a few of the homeless, hungry people in Britain, and she eventually achieved her objective in the city of Leicester, in collaboration with a scheme run by the Leicester Rotary Club.

Apart from her open water events, a series of 27 endurance swims performed by Mercedes in corporation pools in the UK and abroad, culminated in a British record of 47 hours of non-stop swimming, and they also provided the bulk of the revenue needed to get her charity up and running. These events were unique in Britain and thousands of people attended the various pools to watch her swim, often necessitating the police to be brought in to control the crowds queueing outside.

Mercedes retired from swimming in 1933 and became a suburban housewife, bringing up three children. During those years she became increasingly reclusive, and eventually completely withdrew from practically all human contact apart from her immediate family. Her amazing achievements, however, deserve to be remembered and celebrated by women and athletes alike.

By Doloranda Pember

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