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.
further in to
shore. I heard, or perhaps felt, two distinct, percussive ‘thunks’ as Peter and Sam, my
crew, jumped in to the water behind me to join me for the final swim to the beach.
The backs of my hands and neck prickled with a rush of adrenalin at the sound.
The water was warmer now, and the darkness of deep water had given way to a
lighter, milkier tone. And then I saw stones on the sea floor, and was taken aback by
a sudden upwelling of emotion, tears in my eyes. One last push, arms cycling more
slowly now, until my fingertips finally grazed the
. Furthermore, in spite of the
search for distinction through escape, contemporary marathon swimming also
resonates with the prevailing cultural logics of neoliberalism, which privilege the
autonomous, risk-managing (and risk-taking) individual whose entrepreneurial
selfhood marks the triumph of good choices over poor ones and a readiness and
capacity to thrive in the market. These two competing motivations – to escape and
to meet the demands of institutional structures – reflect the fundamental paradox
that Lyng describes in relation to ‘edgework
feels like this; when behaviours that I have come to experience as mundane flash in sharp relief against the time before immersion, the before-and-after
spectacle overshadowing the long, incremental process of becoming that lies
Becoming and belonging
between the story’s bookends. Nor, as I explained in the Introduction, does this
tale of becoming end in the English Channel, but continues to be marked by long,
transformative cycles of becoming and unbecoming that neither take me back to
where I started nor reach a definitive conclusion. Both this chapter and
swimming involves a wide range of unpleasant possibilities. In the course of my relatively short swimming career, I have been
fearful, nauseous, cold, in pain, hungry, stung by jellyfish, bitten by water lice and
exhausted beyond imagination. And yet, like many of my swimming colleagues,
I can’t stay away; I am captivated by what Wacquant, writing about the experience of becoming a boxer, described as ‘the intoxication of immersion’ (2004: 4).
Similarly, the interview transcripts and fieldnotes are littered with the spontaneous
metaphors of intoxication: being ‘high as
-brown water, each wave rolling further up our torsos, we have started to
do the belly-button hop – rising onto our toes with each wave, elbows held up and out
to the sides, ribcage lifted. We huff and groan when each wave comes; lots of laughter; the occasional muttered expletive. We know that it will be fine once we’re in, but
the moment of immersion is cruel and we are prevaricating. A voice calls from the
water: ‘Come on, girls: man up and get in.’ (See Figure 8.)
Sport is a domain where gender boundaries are carefully drawn and policed. In
most sports, men and women
push the start button on my watch with my left index finger. The watch chirps and
I break the water in a dolphin dive, surfacing to take the first strokes and exhaling
against the cold rush of immersion before sighting forward again to the buoy to
Two hours later, I swim back into the shallows, reaching once again behind my
head to stop the GPS unit; I hold the button down firmly with cold-clumsy fingers
Becoming and belonging
and then stop my watch, struggling to hit the smaller button with my uncooperative fingers. When I get home, I
running as both contributing to, and
demanding, weight loss.
Fat acquisition is not the only strategy for coping with the cold in marathon
swimming. As discussed in Chapter 1, the body’s thermoregulatory systems can
be prompted to adapt to exposure to cold in a variety of insulative, hypothermic
and metabolic ways through regular immersion in cold water (Hong et al. 1987;
Vybiral et al. 2000; Makinen 2010), although Makinen notes in the conclusion to
her overview of the research on cold adaptation in humans that ‘human physiological responses against the adverse effects
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.
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.