Words by Maureen McCoy
Photos by Paul McCambridge
A beaming face greeted me as I entered the packed hall at the reception of the Global Open Water Swimming Conference, with a grin like the Cheshire Cat, Billy Wallace eagerly showed me the photograph he had just been presented with, taken in Belfasts Ormeau Baths in the 1920s, of Mercedes Gleitze after an exhibition swim, where Billys mother had been her attendant and life-guard. As Billy proudly showed this picture to Mercedes daughter, Doloranda Hannah Pember and me, Doloranda shared in the excitement and began to tell us of her mothers’ interesting career.
Dolorandas’ eyes sparkled as she explained how Mercedes had not only pioneered open water swims but also travelled the UK and Ireland doing such exhibitions, displaying her aquatic prowess and her passionate belief that women could be strong and capable, in a time when women’s emancipation was still being fought. She told us how, growing up, she knew little of her mothers’ swimming career but then found a wealth of information carefully stored in the attic after her mothers’ death.
“She really did not tell us much about her career as a swimmer in fact she swam when she was pregnant with all three of her children, which in those days was unheard of. She did so much to open up things for women.”
Doloranda was inspired to trawl Mercedes papers and researched as many publications as she could find, to compile a definitive book on her mother. It was captivating to listen to this lively lady describe her mother and to hear first-hand about the woman who blazed a trail in swimming and charitable works.
Mercedes own words clearly show the passion she had for swimming; “Sea swimming is a beautiful thing, in fact an art. An art whose mistress should be not the few, but the many.”
“What could possibly speak more for man’s prowess as an athlete than the ability to master earth’s most abundant, most powerful element – water, no matter what its mood.”
(Anna-Carin Nordin(1st woman to complete Oceans Seven) and Doloranda)
Mercedes visited Ireland often and attempted the North Channel many times during the 1920’s, Doloranda said; “It was her biggest regret. She always felt that it was possible. After seven attempts, including three on the Mull of Kintyre where she came very close, only a mile from completing.”
The Mull of Kintyre swim was completed for the first time in August 2012 by Wayne Soutter who said; “It was because of Mercedes I attempted the swim, if not for her I would not have done it.”
Paul and I, both having Grandfathers who were open water swimmers, wonder now if perhaps their paths also may have crossed with Mercedes?
Mercedes Gleitze was inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (www.imshof.org) along with 220 other luminaries and pioneers of the sport of marathon swimming.
Doloranda hopes to publish her book in the near future.