10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


On “Swim”

Recently a friend posted an article from Sports Illustrated about our local hockey team on Facebook. I read it. And then I looked at the SI.com header and saw the categories listed, things like soccer and golf and NFL. One of the categories was “swim,” and so I clicked on it.

When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.

A person can find many disturbing things on the internet, and heavily photoshopped photos of almost naked women are low on the list. But I am resentful of the way Sports Illustrated has co-opted the word “swim” to mean “photos of almost naked women here to be ogled.” Swimming is not about putting your body on display. It’s about using your body to move through the water. It’s about power and motion and efficiency and joy. It’s mostly about joy.

The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.

It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”

Swimming is a great sport for people who are returning to exercise — people who are overweight, ill, injured — and yet those are sometimes the people who most fear exposing their bodies to others, people who have been ridiculed for the way their bodies look.

I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look. All I can say is that I’ve swum in a lot of places, and I have seen a lot of people in swimsuits, and none of them have bodies like you see in the so-called “swim” section of SI.com. Human bodies are squishy and lumpy. They have fat and moles and hair. They sag. Speaking only about my own body, I am so pale I make beluga whales look tan. But swimmers don’t go to the pool to look at other people’s bodies — or to be looked at. We go to swim.

This beluga whale is very pale. Photo by le LIz.

This beluga whale is very pale, and so am I. We both love to swim. Awesome photo by le Liz.

So, if you can, as best you can, forget about “swimming” as defined by Sports Illustrated, and think about swimming as it really is: power, motion, efficiency, joy. Do you love swimming? Swim.

I love swimming, and I love this commercial. Make me one with the female equivalent of this man in it, and I’ll buy whatever it is you’re selling.

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On Nakedness

Last month, ESPN The Magazine‘s annual Body issue came out. I didn’t know ESPN The Magazine had an annual Body issue (I was only vaguely aware there was an ESPN The Magazine), but I heard about this one weeks in advance. Every year, the Body issue features tasteful, artistically nude photographs of athletes from a variety of sports, most of them people I’ve never heard of. But this year, among them, is Michael Phelps:

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

I’m enthusiastic about the Body issue; it seems to me that it is the perfect response to the decades-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, which is all about sex and not at all about sports. While SI features models in swimsuits, ESPN features athletes without them. These are not photos of women as objects; these images portray people, male and female, who use their bodies to do amazing things.

In addition, any positive media portrayal of Michael Phelps is good for American swimming. Swimming in the United States gets very little attention in between Olympic games. USA Swimming and US Masters Swimming are trying to attract more people to the sport with a new campaign called SwimToday (slogan: The Funnest Sport), and when Phelps talks, as he does at the end of this ESPN video (lots more nude Phelps there), about how much fun it is to swim, it’s good for all of us.

And yet, when I learned that Michael Phelps was being featured tastefully nude in ESPN The Magazine, my first thought was, Why? Is there any athlete we need naked photos of less than Michael Phelps? We all know what Phelps looks like almost naked. The difference between Michael Phelps in a swimsuit and Michael Phelps with no clothes is very very small: if you squint at any of the ESPN images, you can imagine that he’s posing in a little white speedo.

(If you follow British news, you could argue that we need photos of a naked Tom Daley even less than a naked Michael Phelps. I’m really amused by this Daily Mail article about Daley “posing topless.” He’s topless all the time. He lives his life topless. He’s a diver: they don’t wear clothes.)

My point is, while we might see something new when we see an athlete like Venus Williams or Prince Fielder with no clothes, the swimmer is already naked. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from David McGlynn’s “Skin,” an essay about bodies and nakedness and what it means to be a swimmer:

[In swimming] there are no shoes, no pads or bats, no accoutrements except for the goggles–nothing, in other words but the body. The swimmer symbolizes an essential athletic truth, that every physical contest begins this way, with the body, and one sport separates from another by the equipment and apparel it heaps onto the arms and legs, the shoulders and back and head. Bareness also keeps swimming obscure. Without jerseys or ball caps to sell in the mall, it’s hard for kids to imitate professional swimmers by dressing like them. The only way to do that is to exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer, in other words, is actually to swim. (267-68)

Swimming requires very little equipment and almost no clothes; it is sport stripped down. McGlynn states that the nakedness of swimming paradoxically keeps it hidden: you can’t put on an outfit and pose as a swimmer. On Sundays in the fall, I see whole families shopping at Costco kitted out in the uniforms of their favorite players, men, women, and children in varying sizes of the same jersey, “Roethlisberger” or another famous name written across their narrow shoulders. But you can’t put on a swimmer’s uniform. A swimmer has no uniform. A swimmer has a body.

The photos of Michael Phelps in the nude are beautiful, but they are hardly revelatory. Phelps takes off his clothes to swim, each day, every day. That is what swimmers do: not just the top swimmers, but all of us. You “exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer . . . is actually to swim.”

McGlynn, David. “Skin.” Southwest Review 95 (2010): 262-75.