On Swimming like a Girl

“It appears that open water swimming is unique among the world’s various athletic competitions. In particular, in the marathon swimming world, not only are women holding their own against their male counterparts, but they are also waiting on shore for the men to finish.” Steven Munatones analyzes records from marathons, triathlons, and open water events and concludes, “Based on the data, it appears that open water swimming may be the most competitive amateur sport when men and women race together. The race is on. May the best (wo)man win.”

Lynne Cox, swimming like a girl. Photo by Michael Muller for ESPN, from Hell in High Waters: The Lynne Cox Story.

I’m thinking about swimming and gender again because of a video going around (an advertisement for Always) about the phrase “like a girl”: how saying someone does a physical activity “like a girl” is a way of saying that the person does it weakly or badly. The point of the advertisement, of course, is that “like a girl” should be reclaimed as a compliment instead of an insult.

But I have also seen comments online from people claiming that it’s simply a natural fact that women are weaker and slower than men. Men are (on average) bigger. Men have (on average) more muscle mass. Women should accept their weakness as a biological inevitability.

And it’s true that in most of the sports I am familiar with men are better than women. Men compete against men, and women compete against women — otherwise men would win all the time. Most competitive sports have men’s leagues and women’s leagues, or even men’s versions and women’s versions: in the US we have baseball for men and softball for women. When men and women play together, rules are put into place to compensate for women’s inferiority: for example, in our local co-ed soccer (football) league, a minimum number of women have to be on the field for each team to keep it fair. We take it for granted that men will win athletic competitions, that the men’s 50 meter dash will be faster than the women’s 50 meter dash, that the male skaters will do the quadruple jump while the female skaters do the triple.

But men are not always better in open water swimming. Munatones’s analysis shows that women often win competitions. It’s not every race, it’s not every time, but women hold the records in several key events, such as the Catalina Channel swim (both directions). Not only that, the average women’s times compare to the average men’s times in events such as the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon.

Munatones doesn’t speculate about why men and women are so closely matched in open water (and so mismatched in other sports), but it seems to me that there’s at least one specific physical reason: women float.

Last year, three men and I swam 50 x 50 yards on 50 seconds to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the men. This is a thing swimmers do: swim a special workout, maybe with some numerological significance, for a birthday or holiday. One of the three guys is a bit slower, and I figured he would swim at pace as long as he could, taking off a 50 here and there. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do; I’ve done it in other situations. Instead he appeared at the pool wearing his wetsuit. Wetsuits make you faster by improving your buoyancy, but wetsuits make you warmer too, and I would not want to swim in our 80-degree pool in a wetsuit.

So I said to him, “You’re wearing your wetsuit?”

And he said to me, “You have a built-in wetsuit.”

Now, just think about that for a second: this man was saying that I had a natural advantage on him because I am a woman. I have more body fat than he does. In other words, I have a built-in wetsuit.

Is there another sport in which women have a physical advantage? Most of our sports are designed (you could say, rigged) to reward the things that men’s bodies are good at. Men are tall and they have muscles, and most sports reward taller, muscly bodies, either big and muscly or lean and muscly. Men aren’t naturally better than women at sports; the sports are set up so that they win.

In most sports, fat is bad, and breasts in particular are in the way. Think of the sports bra industry, selling elaborate garments to female athletes so that they can strap their breasts down. Think of the legendary Amazonians, cutting off one breast so that they could shoot arrows more accurately. Think of gymnastics, a sport for girls rather than women: a post-pubescent woman’s body, with breasts and hips, is such a disadvantage that you rarely see adult women in competitive gymnastics.

Here's another reason I'm not interested in running.
Here’s another reason I’m not interested in running.

But open water swimming rewards technique, efficiency, and buoyancy, and fat floats. A higher percentage of body fat is not a disadvantage. You can use your energy to swim. And the longer you swim, the less important it is to be tall and have long arms and the more important it is to float.

I swam the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim back in 2011. It was a race with about 700 people, many more men than women, and people ranging in age from 10 to 70. The water temperature was 61 degrees, and wetsuits were recommended: most people wore them, including me. But that day the race was won by a woman in her 20s who was not wearing a wetsuit; she beat us all, men and women, in wetsuits and without.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; sometimes the swim is to the one who can float.

Swim like a girl. Swim like a woman.

2 thoughts on “On Swimming like a Girl

  1. You’re so right that sports are rigged for men to excel. I read a book years ago that argued women would be on a par with men overall at ultra-marathons, and that the standard running marathon was designed to be the optimal distance for men.
    These big swimming challenges are about crossing channels and gulfs because they’re there, hence the patriarchal oversight …and from the media reports of sport you’d be forgiven for thinking that women barely participate at all so men probably didn’t realise what might happen.
    It’s quite difficult to denigrate marathon swims as girls’ events isn’t it?!
    Good luck with your big swim.
    You might be interested in Beth French; she’s attempting a swim that’s never been managed before, from Cornwall to the Scilly Isles (thought it’s been done the other way). Here’s the link.

    1. Thanks for the link to Beth French’s site! She’s doing the Cornwall-Scilly swim next weekend. And thanks for the good wishes!

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