Friday, 28 March 2014


(spoiler alert - this review includes comments in paragraph 3 that reveal the outcomes of the swims. Please feel free to click away and come back later if you prefer not to know in advance). 

I finally had the chance to watch the recently released documentary, Driven - a film by Ben Pitterle and Brian Hall from Element 8 Productions about marathon swimming, focusing on swims by teenager Fiona Goh, novice swimmer, mother and insurance company worker, Cherie Edborg, and experienced marathon swimmer, blogger and co-founder of the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Evan Morrison. All of the swims are under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association; both Goh and Edberg are taking on the 12.5 mile swim from Anacapa to Oxnard, and Morrison is attempting the 19 miles from Santa Cruz to Oxnard. The story of the three protagonists is told through a mix of documentary footage of training and the swims themselves, first person narration to camera by the swimmers and unseen narrator commentary, all punctuated by lengthy and engaging extracts of interviews with marathon swimming veterans Ned Denison, Scott Zornig, Steve Munatones and David Yudovin. The film is visually stunning, and I defy anyone not to want to pack up their stuff and move to southern California immediately to spend the rest of their lives swimming in the beautiful waters there. I spent most of the film plotting such an escape; every cell in my body wanted to go swimming while I was watching it (but then I am currently in a very advanced state of swim OW swim deprivation and am therefore easily provoked).

I have to confess that I have been putting off watching it. The trailer for the film tends to focus on the risk, isolation, challenge and hardship of swimming; it makes perfect sense in terms of attracting the attention of potential audiences, but it's not a representation of swimming that I necessarily enjoy. But the film itself is a different kettle of fish, capturing splendidly the swirling mix of pleasures, excitement, nervousness, discomfort and occasional outright misery of a long swim. Indeed, the reality of marathon swims is that they are usually long enough to experience many emotions and sensations, the fluctuating melange of which constitutes the experience of the sport rather than any single element. Capturing this is the film's greatest accomplishment in my view.

There were many striking moments for me: the sight of Morrison floundering confusedly in the churning darkness, and the palpable despair that he was projecting through the swimming body, is painful to watch, especially in such a supremely elegant and powerful swimmer; the delight of Edberg in her accomplishments and her radiating, somewhat surprised, love of the water; Goh's bravely accepting resignation after being pulled from the water having given everything that she had to give; the attentive concern of the crews and observers tasked with taking care of the swimmers and keeping them safe; the beautiful water, its wildlife and the stunning coastline and islands. I am sure that I'm not the only swimmer who saw her own experiences - good and bad - reflected in those of the swimmers in the film, and watching was an act of constant snaps of visceral recognition and bodily memories of the triumphs of finishing, the frustrations of a goal not achieved, the torture of knowing that you could just get out, and the unparalleled lusciousness of the water.

There are also some very situationally specific touches that make this less a film about marathon swimming per se, and more about marathon swimming in southern California (and I don't mean this as a criticism - I liked the specificity and focus). To northern European eyes, for example, or anyone whose marathon swimming experience comes primarily from the English Channel, they will have been drooling at the bright blue skies, glistening water and luxuriously sandy beaches; the use of accompanying kayaks is also a practice that is alien to English Channel swimming and which (from my experience at least) fundamentally changes the dynamics of a swim. I think it's a useful reminder that even where rules are standardised across marathon swims, the experience of each swim is always gloriously particular, influenced by locally accepted practices, environments and the manifold vagaries of what happens on the day.

I had a couple of small reservations. I would have liked to have seen some female swimmers among the veteran commentators - it is great to see female swimmers play such a major role in the film, but it would also have been nice to have a woman's voice among the experts to illustrate the depth and breadth of female expertise and experience that exists within the sport, especially since both of the women featured were relative novices. I would also have liked to have heard more from the crews, who have a unique perspective on swims that is easily overlooked; indeed, the responsibility that they take on, as well as their own sleep deprivation, seasickness, cold and other discomforts are as much a part of the sport as the aching shoulders and nauseated stomach of the swimmer.

But it is a really great watch that does a fantastic job of capturing the compelling pleasures and hardships that constitute marathon swimming. You can buy it here for just under $13; swimmers will eat it up, and non-swimmers might find in it clues to what draws their intoxicated, addicted friends and loved ones to the open water. And if that doesn't pique your interest, the beautiful shots of strings of salps, passing mola mola or scores of bat rays sailing gracefully below will.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Why I don't like Sport Relief...

In this morning's Guardian, there's a long feature on Davina McCall, her recent Sport Relief antics and her troubled personal history. I've written before about the now infamous scenes of her being dragged, limp and cold from Windermere and the rather tasteless spectacle of people looking on and applauding and cheering as she is hauled ashore, but once she'd finished the 'challenge', everything went relatively quiet and that was that. But then, of course, along comes the inevitable BBC documentary - "Davina - Beyond Breaking Point for Sport Relief" - scheduled for 20 March, 2014, prompting a PR drive, including the article in the Guardian.

The article talks about how hard the challenge was, how she was persuaded to do it in the first place, and then dwells lengthily on her own troubled history and her difficulties in coping emotionally after the 'challenge'. There are a couple of things that really bother me about this in relation to Sport Relief. Firstly, I dislike the lack of care directed towards the 'celebrities' who are drawn into these ventures, and for whom withdrawing from a challenge becomes increasingly impossible as the PR intensifies and the money rolls in. In McCall's case, this includes lack of attention to her obvious emotional fragility as well her physical well-being - to undertake a swim like that without the appropriate training or capacity is just an unnecessary risk, and someone should have taken responsibility for this and put a stop to it before it even started. Sport Relief is no better than some of the worst reality TV shows in this regard, exploiting the fragilities of others for the sake of some good TV.

But the second thing that I dislike about Sport Relief is that idea that these celebrities have to see the suffering of others first hand to inspire personal suffering through voluntary physical activity which will in turn inspire donations. McCall tells us in the interview that to persuade her to undertake the challenge, they took her out to a project in "Africa"to see the suffering of women and children directly; talk about moral blackmail...and a rather offensively strategic use of the suffering of others. And in a photo on her Sport Relief pages, we see her empathetically observing a black mother and child "first-hand". The filename for the photo when you right click on it includes the word "motivation", but it's not clear whether this motivation is for McCall or the viewers. Whichever it is, it still seems spectacularly tasteless to use the individuals who are being 'visited' by McCall for motivation to undertake a voluntary physical challenge. The paralleling of the two very different kinds of suffering is crass and discomforting; it's an uncomfortably colonial image whereby the suffering of disadvantaged others is legitimised by the witnessing of a white women they have no reason to know or care about.

I am sure that McCall is a woman of compassion and that this was a terribly moving experience, but why do these celebrities need to go out there? Do they really lack the ability to imagine such suffering unless they can actually see it for themselves? How much money was spent achieving this act of compassionate spectatorship? So this is why I dislike Sport Relief - because it repeatedly insists on the suffering of others being narrated and witnessed by 'celebrities' who see it "first-hand" and then gain motivation from it to undertake some entirely voluntary (and status-building) suffering which is then exchanged for donations. What does it say about us that we need that middle step at all?  

The Guardian adds one final, disconcerting twist to its representation of the whole affair - these photos:

Both of these presumably are intended to evoke the Windermere incident. In the first, she looks beautiful but bedraggled, but in the second, she is depicted as drowning, or possibly even drowned, since she is staring ahead even while her face is largely submerged. Especially this latter is a horrible image which is not only extremely tasteless, but also exaggerates symbolically the suffering of the Windermere event. Horrible.

I don't think all charity is bad; nor do I think that McCall is a bad person to have been involved in this; and I'm sure that some good is done with the money that is raised from these ventures. But I think that this whole affair should give us pause for thought about Sport Relief's use of both the involuntary and voluntary suffering of others and the relationships between them that are produced and marketed to us as "motivation".

Monday, 3 March 2014

Never too old to learn...

6 weeks ago, I had a coaching session with Lancaster-based Swim Smooth coach, Emma Brunning from Active Blu. My goals were, most importantly, to eliminate whatever stroke flaw was causing my shoulder problem, and secondarily, to pick up a bit of speed. All of my stroke correction coaching to date has been with coaches working through Total Immersion, and in particular, I benefited enormously in the past from the expert advice of Ian Smith, who sadly died in 2011, but who was absolutely instrumental in laying down the foundations of my long-distance swimming in terms of body position and timing. A great deal is made within the swimming community about these two commercial training systems and the differences between them, with people tending to align themselves with one to the disparagement of the other. For me, they are two roads that lead in a very similar direction, and at the end of the day, it is the quality of the coaching that is the thing. And this is certainly what I got.

Like all experiences of being filmed, what swimming feels like and what it looks like are two very different things, and it's always a bit sobering to witness your own swimming reality. But that's the point of being filmed. We identified a couple of key problems that obviously connected to my shoulder injury. Firstly, there is the dropping of the elbow and the subsequent upwards swoop of the hand:

Walk like an Egyptian....

I sometimes add a further flourish by dipping my hand back down, then floating it back up again; my mysterious dancing hands. But dancing aside, it puts the brakes on forward movement, wastes quite a bit of time at the front end of the stroke and sets me up for problem number 2: the straight lowering of the arm followed by a late catch:

And just in case my flaws are not entirely clear, here's me next to Shelley Taylor Smith, showing us how it's done properly. Significantly, this shot is of my right arm, which isn't even injured...although more by luck than judgement if this is anything to go by.

This felt like great progress - we had identified a clear target for our corrective efforts, and Emma assigned a small number of drills, each with a clear learning point, to work on later.

This, of course, is all massively useful and I've been working away at my drills and enjoying lots of (painfree) swimming as a result. It's still a bit hit and miss, and the dancing hands still make the occasional appearance, but I'm already seeing distinct improvements.

But the most important thing that I've taken away from the whole experience is about how to drill, and this is what I mean by saying I'm never too old to learn. I'm not new to drilling (in this, and also while learning musical instruments, for example), but I realise now that I've been doing it wrong all these years. My approach has always been to do multiple laps / repetitions of drills, over and over, in order to get the 'feel' of it into the body. But in doing so, I've somehow been disconnecting drilling from swimming. Emma's advice was to do half a length of, say, a sculling drill, or dog paddle, and then swim the remainder to locate it within the stroke. Drill, swim, drill, swim. And I'll tell you, my stroke is never better than the first few strokes after switching from drill to swim; it is in those (sometimes fleeting) moments that you really learn what it's supposed to 'feel' like.

I'm sure many people reading this are banging their heads on the table in despair at my late arrival at what is probably an obvious point, and I honestly don't know why I never got this before now - I work in education and use many of the same principles of learning / implementing in my teaching, but had somehow failed to transfer this knowledge to my own practice.

Never too old to learn....