Vindication Swim

A new film puts Mercedes Gleitze on the pedestal on which she belongs

Relsah Films

If you have never heard the name Mercedes Gleitze, you’re not alone. Until Kirsten Callaghan began research for her audition to play her in new biopic Vindication Swim, nor had she. “What struck me most was the realisation that she hailed from my hometown and I was completely unaware of her,” says Callaghan, from Brighton. Like any other field, the category of “largely unknown extraordinary women” is bulging with historical figures, and the world of outdoor swimming has its own scores to settle.

Gleitze is best known for being the first woman to cross the English Channel – and for the hoax that sullied her claim resulting in the ‘vindication swim’ that gives the film its title. But that’s just the start of it, as Callaghan discovered. “As a working-class, unmarried typist, Mercedes self-funded all of her swims, conquering the English Channel after eight attempts,” she says. “Mercedes not only marked her place as a pioneer in the swimming world, but also fought tirelessly for women’s rights and better working conditions in factories. Every penny of her prize money went into establishing a charity for the homeless, a cause that remains active today. Her extraordinary accomplishments deserve to be etched in the memories and celebrations of women and athletes alike.” 

Gleitze also took six attempts to be the first person to cross the Gibraltar Strait and would stage marathon swims in indoor pools across the country to raise money for her challenges and charity work. As well as the social and economic challenges that Gleitze stared down, long distance outdoor swimming in the early 1900s featured none of the technical kit or support, nor advanced physiological research and expensive planning that goes into current day challenges. This is something the filmmakers felt it was important to capture in the film, which included only filming swimming scenes in the English Channel itself.

Producer Elliott Hasler explains the approach. “The challenges Mercedes faced in her day were immense, especially when until 1926 it was doubted whether a woman could actually physically swim the Channel,” he says. “Then of course there’s the more primitive logistics of swimming the Channel back in the late 20s compared to today; heavy woollen swimming costumes, motorcycle goggles, poor nutritional supplements, the reliance of a simple map and compass for navigation.

Janet Brown

“From the outset I decided that the best way to honour Mercedes Gleitze and her legacy would be to have no fakery in this film. So as a result of that, all of the swimming sequences were shot for real in the English Channel without the use of tanks, green screens or body doubles. The bulk of the swimming sequences were shot off the coast of Newhaven in Sussex, with additional scenes filmed in the waters off the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, but everything is real which I feel is not only important to Mercedes’ legacy but also for the swimming community.”

This meant that Callaghan was required to undertake swimming training in the sea. She was already a strong and confident pool swimmer, and she concedes that the opportunity to do all the swimming drew her to the role. Gleitze’s favourite stroke was breaststroke, followed by sidestroke and Old English backstroke (where arms rotate at the same time) – Kirsten trained in them all, aided by her coach Melodie Tyrer.

“To embody Mercedes’ sense of liberation and empowerment, as well as her remarkable bravery, I had to forge my own personal relationship with the sea.”

“I only ever wore a standard swimming costume, as I knew I would be wearing a vintage 1920s costume during filming,” says Callaghan. “Establishing a consistent breathing pattern was my biggest challenge, yet once I did, I found I was able to relax and enjoy the ebb and flow of each moment.”

Given the purpose of Callaghan’s training, learning the techniques of outdoor swimming and new strokes was more than a physical challenge: “My favourite quote by Mercedes is ‘I passionately love the sea, nothing else moves me as it does. I love and understand its every mood and I sometimes fancy that the sea knows and understands me too.’ To embody Mercedes’ sense of liberation and empowerment, as well as her remarkable bravery, I had to forge my own personal relationship with the sea.”

The filming itself brought a different set of challenges. Without a Hollywood-size budget, the number of filming days at sea were limited and having foregone filming in a tank in a studio, the weather and environment were in charge.

Kirsten Callaghan and Boatmen in the English Channel - Photographer Stewart Weir
Kirsten Callaghan as Mercedes Gleitze - Photographer Studio Essy
Kirsten Callaghan and John Locke - Photogrpaher Janet Brown
Director Elliott Hasler in the English Channel - Photographer Stewart Weir
Director Elliott Hasler in the English Channel - Photographer Janet Brown

“On the first day of filming pretty much everyone was hit by really bad sea sickness and after such a gruelling day in which no usable footage was captured, we had a serious debate of whether this film would actually be possible,” recalls Hasler. “I lobbied hard to get one more day out at sea, which we did and successfully got a ton of footage in the can. It was by no means plain sailing after that, and the swimming sequences proved incredibly challenging to shoot. We were forced to contend with Mother Nature in all her glory, but through that everyone on the film developed a great deal of respect for the sea.”

This approach was extended into decidedly modern broader environmental considerations during filming, such as using car shares and no single-use plastics. As the launch of the film approaches, Callaghan continues to swim in the sea and took part in a charity swim for Friends of Brighton and Hove Hospitals last July – evidence that she truly forged her own relationship with the sea while playing Gleitze.

“What Mercedes achieved back in 1927, and throughout her swimming career, is truly remarkable and that for all these years she has slipped from the public consciousness is a travesty.”

So has Mercedes Gleitze’s time finally come?  “What Mercedes achieved back in 1927, and throughout her swimming career, is truly remarkable and that for all these years she has slipped from the public consciousness is a travesty,” says Hasler. “It is my hope that through this film, her legacy will be rekindled and Mercedes will find herself back upon the pedestal she so deserves to be.

“I think there’s also a great deal to be learnt from Mercedes in the way of resilience, determination and simply never giving up on your dreams. Mercedes failed seven times at swimming the Channel before she finally succeeded on her eighth attempt. There’s a great deal to be taken from that, not just from swimmers but for everyone with a dream.”

  • Vindication Swim is released on March 8th 2024, view the trailer here and see cinema screenings here



Beth Pearson