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Marathon swimming, embodiment and identity
Author: Karen Throsby

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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Karen Throsby

 have strayed very far from between the flags now, and my skin prickles with an adrenalin-flooded burst of excitement when the reality of what I am doing hits me through the comforting tap-tap-tap of hands on water: I am swimming the English Channel. This is a disingenuous way to tell my marathon swimming story – a truncated magic-trick narrative that moves from inside to far outside the flags, flattening out the process through which that transition was achieved. Ta dah! And yet, beyond the appeal of the rhetorical flourish of spectacular becoming, there are moments when it

in Immersion
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Karen Throsby

)legitimate assistance are an endless source of debate and contestation that easily match those of the climbing world for their vociferousness. This passion manifests itself most overtly in relation to the use of wetsuits, which have become emblematic of the perceived threat from outside to the presumed purity of ‘Channel rules’ marathon swimming. Neoprene full-body suits provide performance-enhancing buoyancy and insulation and are standard equipment in mass participation and elite open water swimming as well as triathlon, but for many marathon swimming devotees they diminish the

in Immersion
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Karen Throsby

173 Conclusion Marathon swimming is a niche minority sport with a strong sense of its own history and traditions, but with a low public profile and limited recognition of its rules and practices beyond the marathon swimming social world. Yet for those within that social world, it is a deeply meaningful social practice that for many of its practitioners has become a fundamental source of embodied identity and pleasure, and which involves the extensive investment of time, money and energy. This book has explored the embodied and social processes involved in

in Immersion
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Karen Throsby

new wave of (un)becoming as I engaged in the frustratingly incremental work of rehabilitating my angry shoulder and re-cultivating my swimming fitness. A year later, I was able to return to training, 4 4 Immersion marking the beginning of another upward cycle leading up to the 8 Bridges swim in June 2015. These diverse processes and practices of embodied (un)becoming are the first of three key frames for this book, asking: how do you render a body able to swim extraordinary distances? What embodied pedagogies facilitate the production of the marathon swimming

in Immersion
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Karen Throsby

English Channel, the Catalina Channel  – but the Round Jersey chart remains one of my favourite possessions, taking pride of place in all three of the homes I’ve lived in since then. It is, at once, a conversation piece and a beautiful object, evoking the visceral recollection of everything that I love about marathon swimming and marking a significant moment in my swimming biography. September 2014 It is the first day of my new job and I am nervous; full of the insecurities of new beginnings and desperate to impress. I  slip a discreet pendant on a leather cord around

in Immersion
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Karen Throsby

stairs, a terrifying collision with a carelessly driven car while out cycling, an over-ambitious tackle in a rugby match. These are the stories that are recounted to shared horror, or perhaps sympathetic laughter, in response to the question, ‘What 155 Failing bodies 155 happened?’ In the case of marathon swimming (and other endurance sports), however, the moment of injury itself may be unclear. While swimmers may recall, as in my case, a time period over which a niggle transitions into an inescapably painful experience, the genesis of the injury may lie several

in Immersion
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Karen Throsby

which other sporting performances can be measured (Kay and Laberge 2004). This determined insistence on the gender binary highlights the status of the athletic body as ‘a site of anxiety’ (Magdalinski 2009: 93), where deeply entrenched convictions about the ‘naturalness’ of gender relations and performances have to be defended against the disruptions of athletic female bodies (see Cahn 1994; Hargreaves 1994). Within marathon swimming, the prevailing ideology is that it is open to anyone without regard for gender, race, age and so on, and that our identity as swimmers

in Immersion
Karen Throsby

practice. But even without those cultivated skills, the swooping, flying, plunging acrobatics of the accomplished surfer or windsurfer look fun, even to the most uninitiated eye. Marathon swimming, on the other hand, is much less self-evidently pleasurable. It lacks the spectacle and adrenalin of other lifestyle sports; indeed, most of the ‘action’ is literally out of general view, and even that which is visible is repetitively unremarkable (see also, Askwith 2013). The imagery of isolation and monotony combines with common perceptions of open water itself as hostile

in Immersion
Karen Throsby

justification. This, then, provides the starting point for the c­ hapter – not so much the act of swimming for charity, but rather, why it’s so hard not to. How can we understand the normative congealing of the relationship between charitable fund-raising and marathon swimming? What social and identity processes and relationships are enacted (and resisted) through the practice of ‘swimming for…’, and to what effects? The phenomenon of the ‘charity challenge’ is now a thoroughly ingrained part of contemporary neoliberal society. Perhaps the most high profile examples can be

in Immersion