Gaining to Win? Open Water Distance Swimmers Lose Media Attention

Over 100,000 spectators lined the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park to witness the women’s open water marathon swim on August 9. Representing 34 countries on 5 continents, 25 women plunged into the lake’s murky waters and raced for nearly two hours to complete the 10K (6 mile) course. Astonishing viewers in a highly unexpected and dramatic finish, Hungary’s Eva Ristov and America’s Haley Anderson stretched their strokes to claim the gold and silver medals, respectively.

Official boats monitoring swimmers racing the Serpentine course in Hyde Park, London. Photo by Mike Lewis.

Ahead for the majority of the race, 26-year old Ristov finished in 1hr, 57min 38.02sec. Anderson, a 20-year old senior at the University of Southern California, trailed her by a mere .04 seconds. Swimming enthusiasts predicted that Keri-Anne Payne (Britain), Martina Grimaldi (Italy) and Melissa Gorman (Australia) would capture gold, silver, bronze, respectively. Ristov and Anderson–the dark horses–astonished onlookers and made history for their nations.

The dramatic finish of the women’s open water 10K coupled with the unpredictable nature of the sport illustrate why, from 1910-1927, American sportswriters reported avidly on similar races occurring in American waterways annually. Water temperature, unseen obstacles and sheer physical exertion of open water swim marathons lend an exciting element of danger. Undertaken in oceans, lakes, and rivers, the swims present unique challenges. Unlike the pristine aqua of a chlorinated pool, open waters are typically murky and filled with reeds, weeds, and aquatic life that must be navigated. Open water courses are not cordoned into lanes, forcing swimmers to plunge into the water in a chaotic free-for-all. They race closely, body-to-body, heightening intrusive splashes and the chances of kicking and elbowing one another. Interviewed after the 2012 race, Anderson noted that some swimmers intentionally grab at the feet of racers in front hoping to disrupt the leading swimmers’ focus.

Water temperature presents one of the largest and potentially dangerous issues. The Red Cross identifies 78°F as the ideal safe temperature for open water swimming marathons (most pools hover between 80-84°F for comfort). American distance swimmer Fran Crippen died while swimming the in FINA’s 10K open water series in the United Arab Emirates in 2010. High water temperatures (86°F) induced serious heat exhaustion and dehydration that led to the hospitalization of several other swimmers after the race.

In most open water races, fleets of boats trail beside swimmers to monitor safety and ensure that rules are followed. Governing rules prohibit swimmers from touching the vessel at any point. Coaches may administer food and water, provided they do not direct touch the swimmer’s body.

Open water swimming race from the Battery to Coney Island, New York, 1908. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

In the 2012 women’s Olympic open water marathon, the motorized skiffs monitoring the swimmers were called to action when two women, Jessica Roux (South Africa) and Poliana Okimoto (Brazil), floundered. After completing four of six laps, Okimoto succumbed to hypothermia. Unable to continue in the Serpentine’s 77°F water, she raised her hand to be withdrawn. She lost consciousness after being taken from the water and received medical attention.

The danger and drama of the women’s 10K open water marathon didn’t provoke much attention in America. And, compared to rapid reporting in other swimming events, Anderson’s incredible finish received relatively scant media attention, despite the fact that she was the only woman representing the US in the marathon and became the first American to win an Olympic medal in open water swimming. Perhaps the newness of the event–the open water 10K debuted in the 2008 Olympics–makes it less newsworthy. In general, however, open water swimming fails sustain contemporary American mainstream media interest. Why?

The multifaceted reason involves money, time, convenience, and cultural expectations. By its nature, marathon swimming is at odds with values in modern America. In a society characterized by short attention spans and instant gratification, the news media can’t profitably sustain widespread interest in an athletic event that lasts between two and fifteen hours and may or may not occur due to unpredictable weather. Plus, open water swimming isn’t terribly sexy compared to other sports. Swimmers aren’t clad in bikinis. Instead, they tug on wetsuits or coat their bodies with an odorous mixture of lanolin and grease. In a culture obsessed with counting calories, fat-free foods, and streamlined bodies, open water swimmers run against the grain.

To withstand the cold water temperatures and store energy required for the race, most athletes intentionally gain weight before long distance open water swims. Keri-Anne Payne (Britain), silver medalist in the 2008 Games, reportedly gains two kg (4 lbs, 10 oz) three days prior to intense competitions. Few women today can relate to intentionally gaining weight or wanting to sustain physical bulk.

From 1910-1927, Americans followed open water swimming marathons as faithfully as they do football games today. At the time, standards of beauty differed greatly. The larger frame of open water swimmers was applauded as healthy–an ideal to which women should aspire. Annette Kellerman, considered “a paragon of physical perfection” stood 5’4¼” tall, with a 33.1-inch bust, 26.2-inch waist, and 37.8-inch hips.

Ad for Daughter of the Gods, promoting Kellerman as the perfect woman by showing measurements, Nov. 1916.

Compare that to figures idealized today. Elle McPherson stands 6’ tall, with a 36-inch bust, 25-inch waist and 35-inch hips. If Barbie–who introduces young girls to impossible beauty standards–were a real woman, she would stand 5’9″ tall, sport a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. Women open water marathon swimmers exhibit muscular strength, impressive stamina, and discipline unfathomable to most. Their builds defy the skinny ideal which monopolizes popular culture in American. Is it any wonder that open water swimmers aren’t favored by the press?

3 Replies to “Gaining to Win? Open Water Distance Swimmers Lose Media Attention”

  1. Marilyn,
    Your mom sent me the link to your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article. You are so articulate and put things in such a great perspective. Wishing you all the best in your endeavors and future writings.

  2. Thank you for your posts! I read a few of them and they are very interesting. Maybe one day you might also find the answer to why women gymnasts don’t get to wear ‘stretch pants’ on the bars and the men do. Thanks again for your hard work!

  3. Hi Marilyn,
    Fascinating! I loved the historical background of the women’s open swimming events. I was not even aware that this event for women took place. Cheers to the women who were brave enough to endure the obstacles and dangerous conditions of this sport. It’s sad to think that today we permit the media and various other marketing methods define what the ‘ideal’ woman should be.

    Your research is commendable. I truly hope you get the recognition you deserve for all of your efforts. This would make a great television special on the history channel.

Comments are closed.