‘No stunt doubles for me,’ says actor who braved Channel to recreate epic swim

<span>Kirsten Callaghan as Mercedes Gleitze in Vindication Swim.</span><span>Photograph: Relsah Films</span>
Kirsten Callaghan as Mercedes Gleitze in Vindication Swim.Photograph: Relsah Films

A Brighton actor is to restore the reputation of one of the city’s forgotten international stars this week with the release of the film Vindication Swim, about an extraordinary feat of endurance. Almost a century ago, Mercedes Gleitze was the first British woman to swim the Channel, although her reputation was briefly tarnished when her record was challenged in a notorious feud with another swimmer.

Now Kirsten Callaghan, who looks uncannily like Gleitze, is bringing her story back from the swimming archives with her lead performance in the new biopic, released on Friday, International Women’s Day.

“I didn’t know about Gleitze until I went up for the part, but she was amazing. She really lit the spark for women Channel swimmers,” said Callaghan, who did all the swimming involved herself and is now a passionate enthusiast for the sport.

“I was already confident in the swimming pool, but I trained for three months prior to shooting, swimming around the head of the pier in the rain and the cold, sometimes even in rough water,” said Callaghan. “I had to be ready to swim out at sea, although we always carefully judged safety and there was always a boat with a lifeguard nearby. I’m proud that no computer graphics or stuntwomen or ‘green screen’ effects were used in the film.”

Gleitze, initially a stenographer working in London, began her own epic swims in the waters of the Thames. By the end of her career in 1932, she had managed to stay immersed for 36 consecutive hours.

She made eight attempts to cross the Channel, succeeding in October 1927 with a time of 15 hours and 15 minutes. But her British triumph was immediately disputed by another swimmer, Dorothy Cochrane Logan, also known professionally as Mona McLennan, who claimed that Gleitze had faked it and that she herself had done it for real, and faster.

“For me, there is no doubt,” said Callaghan. “Gleitze set the record, 1,000%. I have read her diary extracts and she was a very pragmatic person and gave away most of her prize money. She set up a series of centres for homeless people and was also very interested in the working conditions of women in factories.”

A report carried by the New York Times in October 1927 judged that the American Olympic champion, Gertrude Ederle, still held the international women’s record for a cross-Channel swim of 14 hours and 39 minutes, set in August 1926, since Logan had just confessed that her claim of a time of 13 hours 10 minutes was a hoax. She had set it all up, she said, to emphasis the need for proper supervision of future attempts.

Callaghan, who stars in the film as Gleitze alongside established actors Douglas Hodge and James Wilby, was initially surprised to be invited to audition. “I had imagined she was like some modern-style Olympian, so when I saw that we looked quite alike, with the same height and slight shoulders, that gave me confidence,” she said. “We are both from Brighton too, and she was 27 when she did the swim, and I was 27 when I was cast.”

The film comes as interest in open-water women swimmers crests as Jodie Foster and Annette Benning compete for Oscars for their roles in Nyad, about swimmer Diana Nyad’s attempts in the early 2010s to swim from Cuba to Florida.

Callaghan encountered marine wildlife of all shapes and sizes during the filming: “Mackerel swam by my face a lot of the time and I saw a pod of about 30 dolphins one day, about two miles out.” After filming, the actor, who is the daughter of an intensive care nurse, took part in last summer’s Big Brighton Sea Swim to raise money for the Friends of Brighton and Hove Hospitals. She may well now take part in a forthcoming charity relay across the Channel, she said. Meanwhile, she has written the script for a true crime film with Vindication Swim’s young director, Elliott Hasler.

Non-swimming Sussex women were also celebrated on the set of the film because Hasler invited a group of largely female members of the u3a organisation, aka the university of the third age, the national social network designed for older people to share activities, to take part as extras.

Suzanne Bystry, of Brighton u3a, told the Observer she and other members had joined other “background artists” from local amateur drama companies, all dressed up in period costume. “We spent the day walking up and down in crowd scenes. Best of all, we were on a beautiful old 1920s bus with outside stairs and open-top deck, being issued with authentic 20s tickets by a very smart 20s-dressed conductor,” she said.

Following her Channel swims, Gleitze went on to break records swimming the straits of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles, and around the Isle of Man. Her fame was such that Rolex named a watch after her, and the company still uses her image in promotions. In 2023, a picture of her emerging from the sea clutching a bag and goggles was featured in adverts, while an earlier campaign showed a woman swimmer with the watch on her wrist. When Gleitze swam with the watch to test it, she actually tied it around her neck.

The achievements of the great British Channel swimmer were formally recognised in 2022 by the placing of a blue plaque on the Brighton house where she was born.