by Chance Stoner
In October 1927, equipped with just her swimming costume, cap and coated in goose fat, Mercedes Gleitze braved the chilly waters between Folkestone and Calais and became the first British woman to swim across the English Channel.
Mercedes – born in 1900 – grew up at the forefront of the battle for gender equality and the vote for women. After discovering her love for open water swimming at a young age when she was taught by her father, Mercedes went on an inspirational journey to push herself to her limits and achieve her goals. However, living in a patriarchal society where sport was predominantly a man’s world, this was no easy feat. As soon as she set her mind to it, Mercedes worked long and hard to complete the 21-mile swim across the English Channel. Despite this immense achievement, her reward was to be shunned after a competitor claiming to also have swum the distance was discovered to be a hoax. In order to vindicate herself, Mercedes swam the distance for the 8th time to reclaim her triumph. However, on this attempt Mercedes didn’t make it all the way to the finish line but the 10 hours she did spend in the water was enough to prove to the Swimming association of her original achievement. This swim became known as her ‘Vindication Swim’.
Although saddening that Mercedes had to redo her incredible swim across the cold sea to prove herself, she quickly became a role model to many. Along with the exhaustion of the swim, Mercedes had to battle bitterly cold water, jellyfish and tides that could pull you away in an instant. Mother nature was also challenging requiring a small fishing boat to lead the way through thick fog. With no modern technology, the small boat had to constantly sound its horn when other boats emerged from the dense fog. Even with new technology on our side in the modern world, there have been more people climb mount Everest than swim the Channel!
It was after her swim across the Channel when Mercedes became the first Rolex Testimonee. The founder and director of Rolex – Hans Wilsdorf – celebrated her landmark event dedicating a full-page advertisement on the front of London’s Daily Mail declaring the success of the first waterproof wristwatch and boosting awareness of Mercedes’ spectacular feat.
The success in Mercedes’ career didn’t stop there, under a year later in April 1928 she became the first ever person to swim the Strait of Gibraltar! Her strong will and determination lead her to increase the endurance swimming record from 27 hours to 47 hours. Other admirable successes include completing the Hellespont in under 3 hours and crossing Sydney Harbour and Wellington Harbour in New Zealand. Whilst being four months pregnant, Gleitze became the first person to swim from Cape Town to Robben Island and back. Not only did she do this when she was pregnant, the waters she faced were infamous for great white sharks. This determination is enormously inspirational because of her strong will to keep going even when obstacles stood in her way.
Even after her fight to reclaim her success and the hard work to complete the swims, Mercedes wasn’t driven by personal gain telling reporters at the time “I hope to win for England this additional swimming honour”. Driven by an urge to help families in poverty, Mercedes used her money earned from her swimming to set up and build a trust fund with the Charity Commission. In June 1928, the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for Destitute Men and Women was established and is still active to this day.
Mercedes Gleitze is a woman who should inspire everyone from her determination to reach goals unexpected of women at the time to her generous and kind-hearted nature to use her success to help others. An upcoming film titled ‘Vindication Swim’ (named after the swim to prove her initial achievement) directed by Elliott Hasler is dedicated to her life and seeks to tell this beautiful and fascinating story that has been lost through time. For me personally, Mercedes has encouraged me to push harder for my goals no matter what may stand in my way and I hope she will be just as inspirational to others.