Sports History Files: Women and long-distance swimming

It didn’t take long for some eyebrows to be raised over Diana Nyad’s record swim from Cuba to Key West earlier this month. On Sunday, The New York Times took a deeper look, and I’ll leave it to the parties interviewed to shed some light on what probably will always be a murky tale.

Nyad vehemently denied she “cheated” in finally completing the 110-mile route without a protective anti-shark cage after several unsuccessful attempts. At the end of the story, long distance swimmer Bonnie Schwartz, who crossed the English Channel in 2005, issued this challenge:

“Nyad owes the swim world a look at her data and absolute transparency about how she was able to cross a waterway that has crippled other, younger swimmers. We’re her peers. She’s not above us.”

For most people inspired by the 64-year-old Nyad’s feat, none of that is likely to matter. I had dinner with fellow middle-age friends over the weekend, and the topic was dominated by discussion not only about Nyad’s endurance, but her determination.

thegreatswimWhat’s most intriguing to me — besides the persistent desire to do something this extreme and take four stabs at it since the age of 60 — is that this is another woman doing something notable in the realm of long-distance swimming.

It’s been 87 years since Gertrude Ederle completed her historic swim across the English Channel, at a time when female athletic activity was actively discouraged, especially anything involving any kind of distance. There were only five women’s swimming races in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics two years later, with the longest solo race being the 400-meter freestyle (an event Ederle won at the 1924 Games).

But in the open water, women have been seemingly compelled by mysterious force and have gained eternal fame for it.

Gavin Mortimer’s 2009 book, “The Great Swim,” was the story of four American women who attempted English Channel crossings in the summer of 1926. Ederle, then 19, was the first to make the 21-mile span from Cape Griz-Nez to Dover, breaking the men’s record in the process, and with the French newspaper Le Figaro heralding her as “the most glorious of nymphs.”

The ordeals experienced by Mille Gade, Lillian Cannon, and Clarabelle Barrette also captivated the public across Europe and North America. The four women were under contract to write about their preparations for various newspapers, and the press competed mightily to chronicle their swims. More than two million people lined the streets of New York to honor Ederle at a ticker-tape parade.

Mortimer concluded that what they did achieve started to very gradually change perceptions of women and sports, although it wasn’t reflected in the Olympic programme or the popular press (beyond the novelty stage) for many decades. swimming-antarctica

In a more modern time, American Lynne Cox also swam the English Channel, but like Nyad was driven to go far beyond that. In her 2005 memoir, “Swimming to Antarctica,” Cox writes about swimming the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the Strait of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope, and her groundbreaking 1987 trek across the ice-cold Bering Sea from Alaska to the former Soviet Union:

I am pushing myself to the limit. But I’ve got to do this. This swim is not about me. It is about all of us.

It’s about doing something that’s going to make a positive difference in the world. For eleven years, I hoped when there was no reason to hope. I have believed when there was little to believe. For the last forty-two years we’ve been engaged in a Cold War with the Soviets. Somehow it has to be stopped. I believe that this swim will create a thaw in the Cold War. I cannot fail. If I die, doing this, the Soviets will regret giving me permission to make this swim. I can’t let that happen. Swim faster! Don’t focus on the cold or the pain. Don’t give any energy to it. Focus on the finish. Swim faster.

The geopolitics of the time aside, the rest of Cox’ story is a deeply personal one, reflecting a remarkable inner, and individual drive, much like what has possessed Nyad.

But nowhere in her recollections, or in the many interviews Nyad has given about why she does what she does, do they indicate they’re doing this to prove themselves as women. It’s a far different time than that of Ederle, who set out to show that a woman could swim the English Channel, and by doing so bested the marks of the five males who had crossed before her.

Swim:SherrThat drive stemmed from her individual passion for the water, which American journalist and women’s history author Lynn Sherr details in “Swim: Why We Love the Water,” recently out in paperback:

Swimming is my salvation. Ask me in the middle of winter, or at the end of a grueling day, or after a long stretch at the computer, where I’d most like to be, and the answer is always the same: in the water, gliding weightless, silencing a trail through whatever patch of blue I can find. . .

At one level, it’s purely sensual: the silky feeling of liquid on skin; the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get; the opportunity to reach, if not for the stars, at least for the starfish. Swimming stretches my body beyond its earthly limits, helping to soothe every ache and caress every muscle. But it’s also an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation, when, encased in an element at once hostile and familiar, I find myself at peace, able — and eager — to flex my mind, imagine new possibilities, to work things out without the startling interruptions of human voice or modern life. The silence is stunning.

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