This article appears in our 2015 Summer issue, Blue. Subscribe today!
In December 2014, at the FINA World Championships, Alia Atkinson of Jamaica became the first Black woman swimmer to win a world title. But instead of a photo of her swimming or displaying her gold medal, ESPN, the Guardian, and CNN chose a shot showing Atkinson’s initial open-mouthed, wide-eyed surprise—making her look more like a lottery winner than an elite swimmer. Fox Sports, The Root, and the BBC chose more appropriate images. But the moment-of-shock photo coupled with feeble airtime—Universal Sports was the only non-web channel to carry the championships—revealed the state of denial that mainstream media are in about Black women’s swimming. They’ll have to adjust their goggles quickly, though, because a new generation of multicultural women swimmers is coming up.
In March 2015, three women of color took first, second, and third places at the Division 1 NCAA Championships: Simone Manuel (breaking American, NCAA, U.S. Open, and 17–18 National Age Group Records in the women’s 100-yard freestyle), Lia Neal, and Natalie Hinds. Swimming seems to only make news when Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte breaks another record. Lochte has been on the covers of Vogue and Time, had a reality show on the E! network (predictably canceled after the first season), and trademarked his own expression: “Jeah!”
It’s not really news that young white males like Lochte command more than their share of attention; nor is it surprising that network programming is driven by sports like football and basketball, while the accomplishments of women swimmers and swimmers of color are sidelined. It’s a familiar pattern, but one that needs to change. Media coverage (either sexist or nonexistent), coupled with ongoing institutional racism and discrimination, have been significant barriers obscuring—but not preventing—women, people of color, and disabled swimmers from entering the water. Knowing this makes their achievements all the more remarkable.
Historically, white men have seen the water’s edge as a place where the rules of sexuality and gender were at risk and had to be enforced. Women swimmers of all backgrounds provide an inspiring counter-narrative to the male-dominated sports story by showing the power of the female body taking on an elemental force—water. Today’s swim industry is trying to increase the sport’s profile, but it’s not yet clear that any structural changes in either professional or recreational swimming are forthcoming. If we’re going to aim for fairness, we’ll have to understand the history of pools and beaches as charged zones full of sexual tension and racism—and learn about the women who dared to dive in.
Dangerous When Wet
Sexist media and white male–dominated swim organizations may impede diversity in swimming today, but in the 19th century, significant physical barriers prevented most women from even thinking about entering the water. Urban waterways, such as New York’s East River, were putrid with animal car-casses and sewage. Still, some men and boys swam in the polluted water, according to Lisa Bier’s Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870–1926 (2011), and preferred to do so naked.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, swimming for recreation or sport was relatively uncommon, and modesty codes for women meant baths and pools were segregated by gender. Working class men of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, however, swam together. Water was reserved for men and boys because prevailing attitudes suggested exertion would “unsex” a woman—that is, make her unattractive and unable to bear children. If that wasn’t enough deterrence, when women were allowed in the water, they had to wear swimming costumes so cumbersome (bloomers, skirts, and even shoes) they could precipitate drowning.
Then came the disaster of the General Slocum, an excursion boat that caught fire on the East River in 1904: More than 1000 people died, mostly women and children. Many drowned not far from shore because they couldn’t swim. After this tragedy, women battled heartily for the right to swim. By 1911, the National Women’s Life Saving League advocated for women’s swimming lessons. Four years later, they staged a suffrage swim, in which a “fully clothed and hampered” anti-suffragist dummy almost drowned before she was “rescued” by liberated female swimmers. While nascent swimmers were tying liberation to the waters, attitudes about women and propriety remained. Adeline Trapp’s father taught her to swim; she became the first woman to swim endurance races around New York City. But neighbors had told her parents it would be a “violation of all propriety to have her do exercises that will teach your daughter’s legs to become unacquainted with each other.” The insinuation about a woman’s ability to keep her legs together reveals that a preoccupation with women’s sexuality was behind much white male policing of the water.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Annette Kellerman, a.k.a. “The Diving Venus,” popularized women’s swimming. Born in 1886 in Australia, Kellerman had rickets and wore braces on her legs as a child; a doctor prescribed swimming. She was the first woman to attempt the English Channel and she once raced against 17 men for seven miles in the Seine, placing third. But she also played to the media to promote her touring performances, likely making up the widely circulated tale that she was arrested for “indecent exposure” in a swimsuit she designed—a unitard, known ever after as the “Annette Kellerman.”
Her marketing platform was startlingly modern: She wrote fitness advice books for women—such as Physical Beauty: How to Keep It—pioneered nudity in film, choreographed underwater ballet, and starred in Daughter of the Gods, the first Hollywood film with a million-dollar budget. She did her own stunts, high-diving from wires and escaping crocodiles. Yet Kellerman, hewing to feminine ideals, promoted herself as a “mermaid,” not as a daredevil or businesswoman. Her sex appeal helped usher in a new era of swimming, but women were still excluded from private pools, such as the luxurious one in the New York Athletic Club, and American women swimmers were not allowed in the Olympics until 1920, when they swept the awards.
When Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in 1926 at age 19, she broke all previous records—all held by men—and changed the way everyone saw women and water. She was no sex symbol—she swam covered in sheep grease—but instead represented women’s unadulterated physical power. Elite women swimmers became celebrities in the 1940s and 1950s, but mass media focused on their sex appeal, obscuring their legacies as sportswomen. Eleanor Holm’s fame ended her athletic career—already known as a party girl for performing in nightclubs, she gained even more notoriety upon her expulsion from the 1936 Olympics for drinking champagne on the Germany-bound ship, where female athletes were chaperoned. Afterward she performed in the Aquacade at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40 and appeared in movies, but she never swam competitively again. Her treatment reflects a double standard in which a woman’s adherence to feminine ideals trumps her athleticism in the eyes of the public.
Like Holm, Esther Williams was destined for Olympic glory. But when the 1940 Games were canceled because of World War II, Williams became an aquatic movie star and pinup. The synchronized swimming finale in the Technicolor film Million Dollar Mermaid, a 1952 Annette Kellerman biopic choreographed by Busby Berkeley, is so visually orgasmic that one might mistake it for a vision of women’s sexuality were it not for the meet-cute plot. (“Wet, you’re terrific,” a suitor tells Williams’s character. “Dry, you’re just a nice girl who ought to settle down and get married.”) The film memorializes Kellerman, but invents a rivalry between her manager (whom the real Kellerman quietly married) and a fictionalized suitor. Similarly, the film Dangerous When Wet plays fast and loose with the real deeds of Channel swimmers like Ederle and Florence Chadwick, framing the grueling swim as an improbable romance with a hand-some French champagne magnate who rescues Kellerman on his yacht. Williams’s films left a sequined trail of heteronormative assumptions in their wake, but they made swimming look gorgeous and appealing for a generation of women.
Whitewashing the Pool
Hollywood wasn’t the only cultural determinant of who could swim and how they should look. In Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (2007), Jeff Wiltse details the systematic exclusion of Black Americans from pools and beachfronts in the early 20th century. Prohibitions date to the era of slavery, when masters forbade enslaved workers from learning to swim in order to prevent escape. When swimming became gender-integrated in the “swimming pool age” of the 1920s and 1930s, racial segregation was stringently and sometimes violently enforced; when pools became an arena for protest, African Americans were harassed and beaten—especially Black men, whom white men felt were a threat to “their” women.
Desegregation didn’t bring much change: After 1950, white flight encouraged a spree of private pool building and a dismantling of public commitment to swimming. Wiltse writes, “Although many whites abandoned desegregated municipal pools, most did not stop swimming. Instead, they built private pools, both club and residential, and swam in them instead.” As Martha Southgate opined in a 2012 New York Times column, the myth that “Black people don’t swim” has become self-perpetuating. Today, 70 percent of African American children do not know how to swim and are almost three times more likely to drown by accident than white children. Hispanic children, too, are at risk, with total nonswimmers at 58 percent. Advocacy programs are attempting to change the demographics, notably the Josh Project; Michael Phelps’s IM Program; Diversity in Aquatics; and USA Swimming’s Make a Splash (USA Swimming is swimming’s national governing body).
When pools became an arena for protest, African Americans were harassed and beaten—especially Black men, whom white men felt were a threat to “their” women.
“As a former swimmer, as a water polo player, as an aquatic athlete, I’ve always been critical of how our industry is not outwardly inclusive,” says Rhonda Marable, the former multicultural public relations manager of USA Swimming. Marable told me that swimming needs to increase public awareness, encourage minority representation, and actively work to be more inclusive. “What [the swimming industry] doesn’t understand is that minority communities need an invitation—and beyond that invitation, we also need follow-up.” She was the only Black woman at USA Swimming during her tenure, and, while efforts continue, real change won’t happen until decision makers are more diversified.
Swimming with the Sharks: Contemporary Swimmers and the Media
Institutional bias goes hand in hand with inadequate media attention to deter people from swimming. And when women of any race or background compete, popular culture questions their femininity. In her academic study “Media Coverage of the Post Title IX Female Athlete: A Feminist Analysis of Sport, Gender, and Power,” Mary Jo Kane writes that there is considerable ambivalence in how we present competitive women. Today’s media representations range from thoughtful to condescending to exploitative. Women who swim have been expected to be paragons of “ordinary women,” a model that minimizes their physical strength or portrays their differences as freakishly masculine. Take Dara Torres’s abs: At 41, the swimmer (and mother of a toddler) medaled in the 2008 Olympics, and at 45 she became the oldest swimmer to qualify at trials.
So it was painful to watch her on CNN with Piers Morgan before the London Olympics. Morgan, without much introduction, asked her to lift her shirt, requesting “to see the greatest six-pack in history.” When she gamely obliged, he reacted with mock disgust: “Oh my god…you actually have no stomach!” Torres sensibly replied, “I do have a stomach.” Morgan, ever the class act, then asked which would be better, “the best sex of your life or winning in the Olympics?” Morgan’s assumptions that women athletes are on display—and that they should choose between being women or being athletes—underlies much of what passes for women’s sports coverage.
Since female swimmers are objectified, it’s hard to blame them for cashing in, as Amanda Beard did when she modeled for Playboy and FHM. Her searingly honest memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry (2012), details struggles with bulimia and cutting and describes the detrimental effects of a toxic, male-dominated culture of elite swimming, especially on young girls. When she read clippings about herself as an already famous Olympic teenager in 1997, she quit swimming entirely for a while, writing, “Sportswriters called me fat, washed up, and finished. I’d never do anything good in swimming again, they wrote. There it was in black and white, a complete validation of the negative voice playing on a loop in my head.” While her book is no feminist treatise, she offers important first-person testimony about the consequences of body-shaming media on young girls.
Diversity efforts in swimming will have to address both a prime-time sports media that diminishes women and people of color and the structural inequalities influencing access and leadership. There is a long way to go—according to a 2014–15 report by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, only 14 percent of swim coaches at NCAA Division I schools are women, giving swimming an “F.” Furthermore, eating disorders and emotional abuse by male coaches is common. Natalie Coughlin relates in Golden Girl that if girls didn’t perform up to snuff, her coach said they had “mental problems” and cursed at them. He tried to forbid boyfriends. It was Teri McKeever—the first female coach for the U.S. Olympics Swim Team, in 2004—who got Coughlin to the Olympics. Even more troubling is the systemic sexual abuse of young female swimmers by male swim coaches, which broke in a 20/20 investigation in 2010. In 2014, 19 elite swimmers who had been sexually abused signed a petition blaming USA Swimming for protecting abusers and called on the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) to rescind USA Swimming Director Chuck Wielgus’s induction.
Although Wielgus withdrew and USA Swimming implemented the anti-abuse program Safe Sport (and has publicly banned more than 100 coaches for life—90 for sexual misconduct), many feel it’s too little too late. Unsurprisingly, media coverage of the sex abuse was anemic. Swimming website SwimSwam headlined a 2010 article “Coaches Gone Wild: Naughty Coaches Make National News,” diminishing the crimes’ seriousness. Despite similarities to the headline-grabbing Sandusky case and more victims, the swimming scandal made fewer ripples.
In the 2012 Paralympics, amputee swimmers Natalie du Toit and Jessica Long finished mere seconds away from Olympians’ times. The absence of Paralympics coverage is downright shameful; rights holder NBC did not broadcast them live in 2012. Apparently NBC didn’t get the memo from Paralympian swim coach Queenie Nichols, who said, “Water is one of the big equalizers…. Athletes with disabilities, from below-knee amputations to severe quads, can compete and compete successfully.” As exercise, swimming blows the competition out of the water—pun intended. Because it accommodates many body types and needs, it has the potential to recast our macho paradigm about sports.
Bouyancy means minimal pressure on joints, and water pro-vides full-body resistance. Despite all the benefits, particularly for women—it’s frequently recommended for pregnant women—sport swimming remains inaccessible for many. Lately the swim industry has stepped up its PR, but inclusion may not be the first item on the agenda. In a 2013 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report that ranked 24 team sports by participation, swimming ranked 17th. Worried by this and other indications that swimming is overlooked by parents when they sign up children for sports, swim-industry leaders have been busy launching new campaigns.
Speedo recently released a slickly produced mini-documentary series on social media, “Fueled by Water.” The lush footage is seductive, and the scope of narratives is impressive: A diverse cast of 33 includes an African American woman triathlete and female water-polo players. Still, it’s mainly those already in the swim who will enter the “send us your story” contest or tweet the hashtag. Aimed more widely was the 2014 Swim Today campaign, including broadcast psas and posters—swag for swim clubs across the country—from an unprecedented collaboration between USA Swimming, Arena, Speedo, TYR, and others. The ads engage in token diversity and send a muddled message. In the PSA “The Walk,” a white boy exits the lap pool as a multiracial group of kids applaud him from nearby bleachers. The camera lingers on one blond girl smiling at him as he points toward her in a cool, “Here’s looking at you, kid” acknowledgment; then he high-fives another white boy. Given that swimming is a vital exercise and skill, surely campaigns can do better than suggest that swimming is cool because it gets you chicks.
We can only hope for a future in which all women swimmers are accorded the respect Diana Nyad has achieved. Challenging publicly perceived limits of what women’s bodies can do, Nyad was 64 when she swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013, becoming the first person to do so without a shark cage. As a longtime sports journalist and openly gay feminist, she’s in control of her own media: She was extensively profiled in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, in addition to being on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Photos showed her swollen lips and, in past swims, we’ve seen welts from jellyfish; her marathon swimming takes the sports conversation to another level—where the discussion is about pushing mental and human boundaries. Advocating for diversity is crucial, and swim campaigns might remember Adeline Trapp’s words: “One feels after [a long swim] as if one could do anything. One has conquered an unfamiliar element—why, there is nothing one wouldn’t be equal to…. A girl—every girl—ought to know how to swim.”