Guide Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870–1926

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I spent yesterday afternoon on the bathroom floor of my room at the Sierra Nevada high-performance sports centre, planning to kill myself. While the rest of the Aussie swimming team ate, talked, kicked a ball or watched TV, I thought about slitting my wrists. I stare out the window at the clouds and picture myself inside the bag, as I have a thousand times already this week. I see the zipper close, the last ray of light disappearing. I am lost again in the dark, in my pain …. I am going to do it: I am so clear.

I have saved up some sleeping tablets and I will take them all. I have the afternoon off training, so here I am in the bathroom preparing. I can do this. In the hospital where I am born, I am the only white baby. In Katherine District Hospital, from the instant I take my first gasping lungfuls of oxygen, I am a fish out of water.

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Mine would have been a difficult birth, a breech birth — I try to exit the pelvis feet-first rather than head-first — but I am eventually born by caesarean. For a few moments after birth, I stop breathing and need to be resuscitated. A fish on a hook, I gulp for air. Less than that to Uluru. Life in Katherine, for the first six months of my life, is simple. My parents are travelling around Australia in a double-decker bus and my two older half-brothers are doing School of the Air.

The plan is to save a bit of money, do things a bit differently.

In the first months of my life I breathe in red dust and my mother bathes me in the kitchen sink. To Queensland. Wamuran, to be precise. A small scrap of a town, 11 kilometres west of Caboolture and an hour north of Brisbane. A scrap of a town for a scrap of a girl. We live beside acres of vacant land — disused scrub.

Mum takes me once a week. I am not a sporty kid.

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Active, sure; outdoorsy, yes; but not typically sporty — not in the way you see some primary school kids picking up ribbons every time they turn around. I do gymnastics, but Mum laughs about it, because I cannot, for the love of god, stay on the beam. At tennis, whatever I lack in talent I make up for with talk.

And I do ride horses. I have a horse called Gypsy that Mum saved from the knackery. I ride him bareback, and when he kicks me off I get straight back on. Mine is a diverse, creative family. There are artists and inventors, as well as normal people with normal jobs, but not a lot of sports heroes kicking around.

There are no amazing sporting genes for me to inherit. But me and the two boys from down the street, we have competitions all the time, tearing down the big hill on our cheap imitation BMXs, turning at the last second to save our scrawny necks, sliding and skidding to a halt. Riding our bikes down the face of that hill on Alexandra Parade, the boys and I are far from average. We fight it out for BMX glory. A girl in our street came off her bike on that hill once and was picking gravel out of her face for a week. That never happens to us.

We spend every arvo after school mucking around outside. We compete to see who can ride the fastest, who can skid the furthest and who can get the most air off a jump. We have competitions of every kind, me and the boys down the road, but strangely we never think to race each other in the pool. In fact, I never see my father again.

He has gone by the time Mum tells me he is leaving. Even before he took off without telling me, my dad was never a man of many words. My name, Leisel, is an anagram of his name: Leslie. Mum chose it for that reason. But because I was to be a caesarean birth, Mum was able to choose to have the surgery a day later so that Dad and I could each have our own birthday. Even so, with our almost-matching names and our almost-matching birthdays, surely we were meant to be kindred spirits.

I have so much bubbling up inside me, whereas Dad has … what? Dad never bullies my rivals. He never comes to watch me swim, never once takes me to training. Dad never shows up to my swimming carnivals. Sometimes I wonder if he cares at all. There was one day, though, when Dad cared about something — a day when Dad was actually excited …. I was ten when Dad bought the business that was going to set us up good.

It was a plumbing business, a real money-maker. We poked around the big old barn of a warehouse. We were laughing, all of us. All the way to the bank. Dad never made any money, only lost it slowly. Then all of a sudden he was losing it fast. We were bankrupt. And no-one was laughing.

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We went to the bank but no-one was chuckling. The business was gone, and Dad was off. The house was repossessed soon after. 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.

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.

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She did her own stunts, high-diving from wires and escaping crocodiles. 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 , when they swept the awards. When Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in at age 19, she broke all previous records—all held by men—and changed the way everyone saw women and water. Elite women swimmers became celebrities in the s and s, but mass media focused on their sex appeal, obscuring their legacies as sportswomen.

Like Holm, Esther Williams was destined for Olympic glory. The film memorializes Kellerman, but in-vents 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.

Prohibitions date to the era of slavery, when masters forbade enslaved workers from learning to swim in order to prevent escape.

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Instead, they built private pools, both club and residential, and swam in them instead. Tweet this. 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.

Marable told me that swimming needs to increase public awareness, encourage minority representation, and actively work to be more inclusive. 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.

There it was in black and white, a complete validation of the negative voice playing on a loop in my head.

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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. He tried to forbid boyfriends. It was Teri McKeever—the first female coach for the U. And above all, both female and male swimmers of the 19thand early 20thcenturies had to ply through bays and rivers that also served as city dumps.

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