The story of Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the Channel

The story of Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the Channel

Doloranda Pember was 84 years old before she finally got to witness someone swimming the English Channel at close quarters. Last summer, she was on the support boat when Heather Clotworthy, an open water swimmer from Northern Ireland, attempted the marathon, only to be defeated by the tides within a couple of miles of the French coast. Sitting on the boat, watching a lone and lonely female battling the fearsome conditions, Doloranda at last understood what an achievement it is to cross the Channel under your own steam.

“It is awe inspiring,” she says. “For the first time I came to appreciate properly what my mother went through.” For Doloranda’s mother, Mercedes Gleitze, holds a unique place in Channel swimming history. In September 1927, while still working as a typist in a London office, she became the first British woman to swim the great divide, completing the 21 miles in a gruelling 15 hours 15 minutes. 

When she arrived in Dover, she collapsed into the arms of a waiting spectator, saying “thank God I’m still conscious”. But that was just the start of it. Across seven years in the late Twenties and early Thirties, Mercedes became a sporting phenomenon. She gave up office work and dedicated her life to open water swimming, breast-stroking across the Strait of Gibraltar, traversing the two islands of New Zealand, dodging the sharks on her way to Robben Island in South Africa. 

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