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Marathon swimming, embodiment and identity

This book is about the extreme sport of marathon swimming. It provides insight into a social world about which very little is known, while simultaneously exploring the ways in which the social world of marathon swimming intersects and overlaps with other social worlds and configurations of power and identity. Drawing on extensive (auto) ethnographic data, Immersion explores the embodied and social processes of becoming a marathon swimming and investigates how social belonging is produced and policed. Using marathon swimming as a lens, this foundation provides a basis for an exploration of what constitutes the ‘good’ body in contemporary society across a range of sites including charitable swimming, fatness, gender and health. The book argues that the dominant representations of marathon swimming are at odds with its lived realities, and that this reflects the entrenched and limited discursive resources available for thinking about the sporting body in the wider social and cultural context. It argues that in spite of these constraints, novel modes of embodiment and pleasure seep out between the cracks of those entrenched understandings and representations, highlighting the inability of the dominant understandings of sporting embodiment to account for experiences of immersion. This in turn opens up spaces for resistance and alternative accounts of embodiment and identity both within and outside of marathon swimming.

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This chapter explores the ways in which the boundaries of authentic swimming are negotiated and maintained. Drawing on case studies of contested marathon swims, the chapter focuses on the necessary arbitrariness of the rules and the centrality of ‘respect’ to the construction of authenticity. The chapter argues that the ongoing boundary work of defining and authorising marathon swimming is both an inward and outward-facing task that attempts to shore up the boundaries of legitimate marathon swimming and distinguish it from related and intersecting (sub) worlds. This demonstrates the ways in which the work of becoming a marathon swimmer is never only about the embodied transformations discussed in earlier chapters, or a completed swim, but is also about the overt performance of a set of values.

in Immersion
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This chapter explores the tension between the ephemerality of swimming and its embodied and symbolic ‘realness’ for the swimmer, and investigates the multiple ways in which material and virtual artefacts are produced and mobilised to make swimming count and render it consumable. The chapter argues that in spite of the suspicions within the marathon swimming social world about the potentially corrupting effect of technology to the integrity of the sport, the everyday practice of marathon swimming is highly, if selectively, technologised. This technological ambivalence is negotiated via social world norms of data gathering, processing and sharing, with users positioning themselves as discriminating and restrained users. This highlights marathon swimming as a tradition-oriented practice with a profoundly contemporary inflection.

in Immersion

This chapter explores the relationship between marathon swimming and charitable fundraising. The chapter argues that the act of swimming for charity is a readily intelligible and sincerely intended means of constructing the good body/self, but that this simultaneously flattens out different forms of suffering and depoliticises social inequalities and ill-health. The celebration of the endurance sporting body and its reward through sponsorship over-emphasises individual accomplishment whilst understating the privilege that facilitates those status-bearing acts. The chapter argues that these elisions and exclusions are made possible by the inextricability of charitable swimming from the cultural logics of neoliberalism.

in Immersion
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This chapter explores the ways in which marathon swimming is gendered. It argues that in spite of an apolitical gloss which erases social differences in the interests of being ‘all swimmers together’, gender seeps through the gaps. This is visible through the strategic foregrounding of the gendered body, either to account for female high performance or through the refusal to embrace the fleshy realities of female embodiment. The chapter also explores the ways in which social context, roles and expectations impact upon women’s ability to participate in the sport, highlighting the importance of placing sporting practice in its wider social and cultural context. The chapter argues that this is never simply a narrative of oppression and constraint, but that women also resisted gender norms and carved novel modes of embodiment in their engagement with marathon swimming.

in Immersion
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This chapter argues that the demands on marathon swimmers to acquire body fat as insulation against the cold are in tension with conventional understandings of what constitutes the ‘good’ sporting body. For some swimmers, this tension is resolved through the mobilisation of ‘heroic fatness’, which renders the fat ‘fake’. However, this protection is not available to all, demonstrating the ways in which not all fat is equal, in spite of the universalised anti-fat narratives of the ‘war on obesity’. The chapter also highlights the ways in which diverse experiences of swimming fat unsettles anti-fat values. The chapter concludes with the importance of looking beyond impoverished, utilitarian visions of sport as a tool for weight management, and instead, of accessing sport’s manifold possibilities for pleasure and for new ways of thinking about sporting embodiment.

in Immersion
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This chapter explores the ways in which pain, injury and the failure to complete a long swim are experienced and accounted for in marathon swimming, and asks what this means for our understandings of what counts as the healthy body. It argues that rather than constituting mutually exclusive, zero-sum categories, health and injury, and bodily success and failure, are determined by the extent to which they can be aligned with normative social world values of autonomy, bodily discipline and self-reflexivity, rather than demonstrable levels of sporting accomplishment. This highlights the provisionality of the normative linking of health and physical activity, and the failure of utilitarian notions of health to account for the sustained engagement with marathon swimming.

in Immersion
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Opening with an autoethnographic extract detailing the end of the author’s English Channel swim, the chapter describes the sport of marathon swimming. It presents a working definition and a methodological account of the research on which the book is based. The chapter concludes with a summary of the chapters, highlighting the key arguments and concepts developed throughout the book.

in Immersion
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This chapter explores the embodied work of becoming a marathon swimmer, focusing on two iteratively related transformational processes: the acquisition of techniques of the body and the accompanying sensory transformations. The chapter argues that the marathon swimming identity is made not given, that the process of becoming is iterative and that social belonging within marathon swimming is the product not only of the specific techniques of marathon swimming but also adherence to local and social world values and practices.

in Immersion

This chapter argues that while marathon swimming is commonly understood through the lens of suffering, swimmers are also drawn to it by its potential for intoxicating pleasures. The chapter explores the different kinds of pleasure experienced by marathon swimmers. This challenges conventional sporting narratives of mind over matter, opening the way instead for a more nuanced account that emphasises the process of becoming not only as transforming what the body can do, but also how it feels. The chapter argues that the autotelic pleasures of swimming constitute a form of ‘existential capital’ among swimmers, which can only be known by those within that social world.

in Immersion