10 mile swim

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


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.

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Dance Like No One Is Watching; Swim Like Everyone Is

The way my pool is set up, there are three benches along one long side of the lap pool. At certain times of day people sit there, waiting for the therapy pool to open to the public or for a class to begin. Directly in front of them, they have a view of the swimmers going back and forth, back and forth. Once upon a time I used to feel as if those people sitting there were watching me, but I would tell myself I was being silly. Just because they are facing the pool doesn’t mean they are watching me. Surely it is egotistical to think they even notice what I am doing.

Now I don’t feel as if they are watching me–I know they are. Several times, someone has asked me later about what I was doing. For example, not too long ago in the locker room:

Woman: What stroke are you doing when you go up and down?
Me: Um, breaststroke?
Woman: No, no! On your back! Your belly goes up and down!

This one took me a little while to figure out; there is no on-your-back-belly-goes-up-and-down-stroke. Eventually I realized she was talking about when I do dolphin kick on my back, like in this video. Apparently she found it bizarre. I imagine the conversation on the bench:

A: That woman is still swimming.
B: Shouldn’t she be at work?
A: You would think. And now her belly is going up and down.
B: Up and down?
A: Up and down. What the heck is she doing?

I’ve had other observers. Once a man in the next lane stood at one end of the pool, and every time I came to the wall for a turn, he went underwater to watch. He did this five or six times. I assume he wanted to learn how to do a flip turn. I posted something about it on Facebook, and the responses were interestingly split by gender: the men thought it was flattering; the women thought it was creepy. I was a little disturbed by it myself; he was hanging onto the lane rope to hold himself under, which meant he was right up against my lane, staring at me from close range. If we had spoken, I would have suggested that he go watch YouTube videos of flip turns rather than stare at strange women in pools.

But although I have had some odd encounters, there are also benefits to being observed. After all, what is a coach except someone to watch you swim? Without a coach, I am left to my own devices, and it can be nice to get a little feedback. Sometimes the people on the bench offer encouragement. One man walking by on his way to the therapy pool told me that I got a lot of power out of each stroke: now that is the kind of compliment a person can hold in her heart during a long cold swim, and it will keep her warm. Knowing you have an audience–maybe cheering for you?–can inspire you to keep swimming, even when you’re tired and everything hurts.

Like Mike Mulligan and his steam engine Mary Anne, I "work faster and better when someone is watching."

Like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, I “work faster and better when someone is watching.”

Of course, I am not just being watched. I’m watching other people, and there’s motivation in that too. I know the people in my pool, by swimsuit or cap, by the way a hand enters the water or the way a leg kicks. And we’re often racing. Racing other swimmers is a common practice. See Jason Gay’s 23rd rule in his 2012 New Year’s fitness article, “The 27 Rules of Conquering the Gym“:

23. Everyone sees you secretly racing the old people in the pool.

How do you know if we are racing? I made a flowchart:


One of the effects of my swim team years as a girl swimming in a lane with boys is that even now, thirty years later, I cannot let a man pass me. I mean, men do pass me (sometimes), but I can’t just ignore them: if there’s any chance I can take the guy, I will swim my hardest to catch him. I can’t help it; I’ve had years of conditioning. This is not something I’m proud of, by the way–it’s more than a little juvenile–but I am self-aware enough to realize it and use it as a motivational tool. If I put myself in a lane next to a man a little better than me, I will go like a dog after a rabbit. I don’t mind losing (much), but I can’t pass up a race.

It may be that we should dance like no one is watching, but we should swim like everyone is.