Mercedes Gleitze: Brighton's champion swimmer

Mercedes stuck to her guns, showing a steely single-mindedness.

Mercedes Gleitze

At 2.55am on a foggy morning just over 92 years ago, a Brighton woman, clad only in a swimsuit, dipped her toes into the sea in Calais. Her name was Mercedes Gleitze.

A typist by day, Mercedes was of German origin but had been born in 1900 in Freshfield Road. On this cold day, during which the sea temperature never rose above 15 degrees, she was making her eighth attempt to become the first British woman to swim the Channel. The going was tough. The fog was so dense that a fishing boat from Folkestone had to lead the way, sounding its horn to warn her of passing ships. But 15 hours, 15 minutes later when Mercedes staggered, triumphant, up the beach in England, her place in history was secure. But it wasn't the last time this keen open swimmer, who fitted swimming practice in the Thames around her day-job, was to have the words 'first' or 'fastest' attached to her name.

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In 1928, just a year after her Channel conquest, Mercedes travelled to southern Spain with the aim of becoming the first person ever to swim the notorious Strait of Gibraltar from Tarifa to Morocco. From the tourist beaches on the Costa del Sol, just a stone's throw away from where Mercedes began her historic swim, this stretch of sea is the stuff of holiday brochures. ccording to the Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association's website, however, 'unpredictable and changing currents, plummeting water temperatures, sudden sea fog, vomiting and passing out from excessive consumption of sea water, exhaust fumes from boats, oil spills, pollution,' are just some of its hazards.

Mercedes swimming the channel

Despite the catalogue of horrors, Mercedes succeeded, reaching the Moroccan coast in just under thirteen hours. To this day, just over 500 people have swum this crossing, including, notably, David Walliams and Ben Cracknell for BBC Sport Relief in 2008. Most now manage it in around four hours but I'm sure even the strongest swimmer would agree that developments in sports nutrition since 1928 and better knowledge of how the body works have helped.

At a time when female sports celebrities were rare, Mercedes' career took her all over the world, competing in over 50 endurance tests and swimming some of the world's most iconic stretches of water, such as Sydney Harbour, Capetown to Robben Island in South Africa, and the Irish Sea. She drew crowds wherever she went and became a newsreel star. Closer to home, she broke the British endurance swimming record in 1933 at Worthing Baths, swimming a staggering 46 hours.

At a time when many believed that a woman's place was the home and that excessive physical exercise could be injurious to a woman's health, Mercedes stuck to her guns, showing a steely single-mindedness.

Rejecting one fiancé because, as she told a newspaper, 'What is the use of letting a man make a home for me when in my thoughts the sea spells '˜Home Sweet Home' to me?' when she did eventually marry, the newsreel footage shows her moving the reporter's congratulations swiftly on to excitedly tell him she's just about to set off for Turkey to swim the Hellespont.

Mercedes swimming the channel

Breaking these amazing swimming records wasn't Mercedes' only legacy, however.

Known for her generosity - she once shared the prize money of an endurance contest she'd won with a hard-up runner-up - she used her prize money to set up a homeless refuge in Leicester, and the charity that bears her name, Mercedes Gleitze Relief in Need continues today.

Louise Peskett writes a fortnightly women's history column for the Brighton and Hove Independent.