Mercedes began her pioneering open-water swimming efforts almost by accident with a swim that would come to define her character and approach to her career. At the age of just seventeen, having decided to run from her parents’ home in Germany to return to her native England, she swam a long stretch of water with no preparation, in the dark of early morning. Those who found her told her it was impossible when she claimed to have swum across the Watten Sea – no one could do that with the dangerous currents. This swim kick-started the affinity Mercedes felt for the water, and came to typify the single-minded determination she applied to her swims.
After beginning a career as a typist, Mercedes fit swimming around her day job, often being described as the ‘London typist’ in press coverage of her early swims. The Channel was always her dream achievement, but by the end of her open-water swimming career she could also boast crossing many stretches of water across the world: the Thames, Lough Neagh, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Hellespont and more. She forged a successful career for herself, using what she could of her income to form the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for Destitute Men and Women (still existent today as part of Family Action), and became a celebrity of her time. She was approached to represent dozens of swimming-related products and was famously the model for the new Rolex Oyster wristwatch, having tested it on one of her swims.
The last swims Mercedes performed were part of her South African tour of the first half of 1932. These combined open-water and endurance swims, every one of which was completed while she was pregnant with her first child. After the birth of her child, and the two younger siblings who followed, Mercedes allowed herself to fade from the limelight, not even telling her children of her celebrity past when they grew into adults.
Mercedes’ story is ultimately one of great modesty combined with undeniable skill and determination. She was a fantastic role model for girls in the 1920s and ’30s, and would very likely be such today. Hers is a little known women’s history begging to be revealed to all.