This is what she said on behalf of her mother:
Thank you so much for the honours you have conferred upon my mother, Mercedes Gleitze. It really is a matter of huge pride to my family to have this acknowledgement of her swimming achievements. And it would certainly have been a source of pride to her as well, because she was one of you, and she would have been delighted to know that she was so highly regarded by her peers.
I thought you might like to know a few personal details about Mercedes. Her background was one of immigrant status. During the last decade of the 19th century her parents travelled from Germany to England to look for work, and they settled down in Brighton on the south coast, where Mercedes and her two older sisters were born.
But when Mercedes was just 14 years old, World War I happened, and because her parents had never applied to become naturalised, her father was interned on the Isle of Man for the duration of the war. Although the authorities told her mother she could remain in England because their three children were all British by birth, she decided, understandably, to be repatriated back to Germany to be with her own family, and she took her three daughters with her.
However, Mercedes never felt anything but English. She wrote about a feeling in her that was so deep-seated she couldn’t contemplate living anywhere else, and as soon as she was old enough she made her way back to England, the country of her birth. She quickly found a job in London, rented a little flat, and became one of the ‘new women’ of that era, living an independent life of her own choosing.
But although she was nicely settled, she wanted more. She wrote about having two parallel ambitions:
* She knew that she had a natural talent for swimming, and she aspired to become a long distance swimmer.
* Her other objective was to try to help the unemployed, homeless people she witnessed sleeping rough on the streets of London. She thought that if she could become a professional swimmer, she might earn enough in prize money to set up a charity and help at least a few of the people living in poverty.
And so she made the English Channel crossing her first goal. She trained at weekends in the Thames, a tidal river. During her holiday period she travelled to Folkestone to acclimatise to sea conditions. It took her a while, but on the October 7th 1927, on her eighth formal attempt, she became the first British woman to complete the crossing.
At that point she decided to give up office work and make a living out of swimming across seas. It was a high risk decision because it was such an unusual occupation, and she didn’t have any financial backing – just her own savings to live on.
After being immersed in her archives and documenting her story, one thing is clear to me: that during her career, she remained true – both to her swimming aspirations and to her desire to help destitute people. Her pioneering swims are numerous and well documented, and her charity was launched in 1933, coinciding with her retirement from swimming. Although small, her Trust Fund is still being used today to help people in poverty.
I’d like to finish with a promise I made to the International Swimming Hall of Fame organisers to bring with me some of her own written thoughts. And because this Conference is taking place on Scottish soil, I thought it would be appropriate to read a short passage Mercedes wrote in a diary, describing the last laps of her swim across the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh, in July 1929.
It was one of those magic moments she was able to look back on in later life, and it’s one of my own favourites:
“I was rather overwhelmed by the reception when I swam across the Firth of Forth. It was a cold, wretched swim which took me nearly eleven and a half hours, but when I waded out near a colliery on the Fifeshire coast I found about 12,000 people waiting to cheer me, and they certainly treated me royally.
My favourite Scottish song is ‘Rolling Home to Bonnie Scotland’. I love the song, not merely because of its beauty, but because it brings back to me a wonderful memory of the last fighting hour of that swim when, in the depth of darkness, about 50 rowing boats from my prospective landing shore, full of singing and cheering Scotsmen, accompanied me in the last laps.
It was a scene like a page from a fairy-tale book which nothing can ever efface from my mind. Pitch darkness – the mast lights of my pilot boat – a yard in front of me the guiding lantern of my attendant rowing boat – to the left and to the right of me, in fact all around me, the flickering, star-like lights of the 50 rowing boats – just darkness and twinkling hurricane lamps – and voices, voices producing the tune of ‘Rolling Home to Bonnie Scotland’.”
Pember reported that the documentary entitled Mercedes Gleitze: The Spirit of a New Age, produced by Clare Delargy of Delargy Productions of Northern Ireland, will be broadcast later this year on Foxtel’s Bio Channel (Biography Channel). It will first be shown in Australia and New Zealand.
The documentary contains previously unseen footage of Gleitze taken during her swimming career, and interviews with Montserrat Tresserras Dou, Olympian Duncan Goodhew, Dr. Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, and Harvard historian Dr. Marilyn Morgan.
The film also features two eyewitnesses, one of whom witnessed Gleitze’s unprecedented swim across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association