Although she describes herself as “a terrible swimmer”, Cork writer Lynda Radley has become obsessed with famous endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim in the English Channel. On his eighth attempt in 1927, at age 26, Gleitze achieved this impressive feat in 15 hours and 15 minutes.
Glasgow-based Radley, after finding a faded photograph of Gleitze in the Cork City Library, went on to write The Art of Swimming, inviting the public to imagine the world of Gleitze. The solo show, starring Radley, was first seen at the Cork Midsummer Festival 14 years ago. He’s now returning to the festival in a new film version for online presentation, performed by Tom Creed with music by Michael John McCarthy.
“What really attracted me about the history of Mercedes Gleitze is its endurance,” says Radley. “I guess when I first wrote the play I was a young writer and I felt like being a long distance swimmer is a bit like being a writer in the sense that it It’s about continuing, there’s a certain loneliness involved.
“And also, people who are very successful have to fail a lot and better before they are successful. Coming back to this story as an older artist with more fear and more success under my belt, I always have l ‘impression Mercedes has something to say tome. “
Radley, who says Gleitze participated in a 30-hour endurance swim at the former Eglinton Baths in Cork City, says the swimmer’s life seems very relevant now, in the context of the pandemic.
“Mercedes talks about going on even when you’re on a seemingly endless journey,” says Radley.
In the film online, Radley pieced together Gleitze’s story, gleaned from archival documents. Initially, Radley had very little material to continue. “While Mercedes achieved so much as a sportswoman, she was out of history and no one really remembered her. I think that was the case for a lot of female athletes. Long distance swimming. is one of those things that women excel at.
“But in her day Mercedes was a celebrity. Men threw roses in the water in front of her. She was amazingly beautiful and she accomplished so much, breaking records. She swam the Strait of Gibraltar before everyone else. . ”
Radley managed to track down two of Gleitze’s three children, Doloranda Pember and Fergus Carey. Growing up, they wouldn’t have known much about their mother’s accomplishments because she stopped swimming to raise her family.
“They were very nice. They had things belonging to their mother that were packed. There was records of her swimming, her programs and her photographs. They shared all these things with me, photocopying stuff for me. . “
Doloranda Pember then wrote a book about her mother, titled In the wake of Mercedes Gleitze.
Gleitze’s parents were German. She moved to England when she was a child and grew up mainly in Brighton. When her father was buried in Germany during World War I, Gleitze, also sent there, was determined to return to England. “She tried to swim back but was unsuccessful.”
However, she returned to England, from where she traveled all over the world to compete in swimming competitions and solo swims. After her relatively early retirement, “she unfortunately suffered from rheumatism later in life.” Born in 1900, she died in 1981.
Radley says Gleitze was not a rich person. “She became a secretary. It’s funny because when I originally wrote the play I was working as a temp in an office. So we had that in common. Mercedes at the time used to swim. in the Thames. “
It was what is now called the “wild swim” which takes place in outdoor bodies of water such as oceans, rivers and lakes. Romantic poets were fond of it, swimming in open water to connect with nature and spirituality as well as nurture creativity. Today’s wild swimmers feature in the press and social media, often accompanied by romantic language.
Gleitze didn’t just indulge his love of swimming. She became a philanthropist, founding homes for the poor. And this pioneer was the first athletic woman to be sponsored by Rolex. The company created the first water-resistant watch called an oyster catcher that Gleitze wore on one of his swims. The world was the oyster of Mercedes Gleitze, a woman of substance who pushed the boat and is now celebrated in movies.