Saturday, 14 December 2013

The picture...

It was hard this summer not to have seen the furore surrounding Diana Nyad's 5th and final attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida - a venture that concluded with her walking triumphantly up the beach in Florida 50+ hours after jumping into the beautiful blue Cuban waters. A festival of interviews and publicity followed, and shortly on its tail, increasingly insistent questioning from the marathon swimming community, led by members of the Marathon Swimmers Forum. Several of these members went on to pose those questions in the international media and in an oddly-staged online 'meeting' in an effort to compel Nyad and her team to address a series of doubts - most specifically those relating to the rules under which the swim was conducted, an apparent claim to a 7 hour nighttime stretch without feeding, an unusually swift pace for several hours mid-swim and the absence of the kinds of systematic documentation that are conventionally seen as legitimising marathon swims. Others, and particularly MSF founders Evan Morrison and Donal Buckley  have written very eloquently, including from the media frontline, about these campaigns and counter-campaigns and at some personal cost in terms of exposure to venomous and anonymous online hate mail. Nyad is something of a lightning rod for both sides of the aisle, and the public discussion of these things can provoke weirdness in ways that are, in themselves, quite intriguing for a sociologist like myself in this polarised world of heroes and villains.

I generally stayed out of the debates at the time, although I also stored the accumulating posts up as data for a book chapter on narratives of 'purity' within the sport - whatever else I feel about the issue, I can't possibly pass up a thread of over 800 posts on the topic as a source to help me understand the boundary work around marathon swimming. This hopefully will enable me to build on earlier attempts to write on this topic, both here on the blog and as part of the research. But at the same time, as many within the community already know or suspect from previous posts, while I personally choose to swim only to 'Channel rules', I don't necessarily agree with the elevation of those rules as the gold standard against which all swimming is measured and I am uncomfortable with narratives of purity and the exclusions that they produce.

But I don't want to get in to the whole did she / didn't she Nyad debate - I don't think it can go anywhere helpful at this stage (although I think that it was useful to ask those questions at the time). Instead, I want to talk about this intriguing photo that popped up last week, taken from Nyad's Facebook pages (which I don't have direct access to so never saw in situ) but which was posted on the MSF and Twitter:

The photo is fascinating, firstly because it clearly shows practices during Nyad's swim that are not only in contravention of 'Channel rules' swimming (which we already knew very clearly were not being followed) but are also at odds with Nyad's own post-swim statements about not being held or supported by others during the swim (which was also already known from other photos issued during the swim, but still, this is a corking example... *see post-script below for revised view of this). But what I find particularly intriguing about this picture is that she (or her media team?) chose to use it as one of many photos from the swim this summer that form part of a campaign to win votes for the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year competition, for which she has been shortlisted. Indeed, like many of the photos currently recirculating, the image has been stamped with Nyad's new "Vote Diana Nyad" logo - the latest in a series of enthusiastically promoted self-branding strategies:

So after all the fuss and palaver about the legitimacy of her swim, my question was: why would she choose an image so blatantly displaying 'assistance' to support her campaign? 

I've been thinking about this a lot and have come up with a couple of possible explanations. Firstly, I suspect that there is an element of sticking two fingers up at those who challenged the legitimacy of the swim - a battle that I think she won in terms of public opinion, or at least in that she walked away with her reputation and associated financial interests intact. But I don't think that's really what the picture is for. Instead, I think that, as with all of her previous media campaigns, it shows an impressively strategic understanding of popular perceptions of marathon swimming / ultra endurance sport - one which she mobilises perfectly. The problem with still images of marathon swimming is that a shot of someone swimming in the first 30 mins of a swim, still fresh and strong, looks pretty much the same as still shots of someone 30 hours into a swim. So the photographer's task is to provide signifiers of suffering via the surrounding context. In this case, the two other people in the frame provide this context; through their acts of physically supporting Nyad both from the water and the boat, the collected trio connote her suffering, exhaustion and endurance to the very limits of capacity. Her apparent helplessness in the picture, prone and sipping water, infant-like, unable to even support her own body, invokes the extremity of the venture. It is melodramatic; on first glance, it is unclear whether she is receiving sustenance or medical treatment, adding to the sense of precariousness of her condition and the limits to which she has pushed herself. This is the message that matters in terms of the public perception of what she achieved (overcoming adversity), not which particular rules she followed. And she knows this well. 

In the debates that followed Nyad's 2013 swim, it looked at first glance like a dispute about what counts as 'assistance', especially for a swim that may not be possible without some forms of technology - a stinger suit, for example. This led to the predictable and frustratingly circular debates about acceptable and unacceptable technologies in an attempt on both sides to solidify the boundaries of (un) assisted swimming. But my view is that the debates were never about whether particular technologies fall within accepted rules, but rather, whether such rules have any value in the first place. Those labelled within those debates as taking a 'purist' position lobbied for the importance of agreed rules as a means of protecting the sport from the encroaching threat of those trying to make swims easier; this argument was made primarily via nostalgic appeals (however arbitrarily adapted for contemporary times) to the conditions of Webb's Channel swim and the importance of the 'level playing field' in the keeping of records. But for most non-swimmers, no amount of technological assistance would render a marathon swim possible or even imaginable, in much that same way that no amount of bolts and ropes would enable me to climb a cliff face. From this outsider perspective, debates around what counts as 'assistance' are something of a moot point, appearing arcane and carping to an audience that is impressed by the arduousness of a long swim (or cliff climb), irrespective of the conditions under which it is performed. This was never a dispute about what forms of assistance matter, but rather, about whether that question matters at all. 

This, I think, explains Nyad's use of this extraordinary photo: it is a perfectly calculated appeal to her core constituency of supporters (and voters) for whom the 'rules' are less significant that an act of endurance / overcoming. 

I'm not really sure what all of this means. I have no idea (and can't really bring myself to care) what Diana Nyad did or didn't do in order to walk up the beach in Florida, although I suspect that it was something fairly impressive and certainly beyond my capacities, regardless of the specifics. But I'm still no fan. I find her relentless self-promotion tedious and rather absurd; I like a good long swim as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, it's only swimming, no matter how far it is. I find her ungenerous to other swimmers, hopelessly solipsistic and I greatly dislike the "anything is possible / never give up" message that she propagates, since it denies the palpably obvious truth that anything is not possible and that to say so shifts the blame for failure onto individual lack of will to the exclusion of other social / economic / physical constraints. 

But all this aside, I do think that her use of this photo says something quite interesting about the way that marathon swimming is publicly perceived and which aspects of it are valued within / outside of the specific social world of 'Channel rules' marathon swimming. And I think that her use of it is both audacious and perceptive in ways that are likely to be highly effective in terms of winning support for her campaign. It is an incredible image, replete with conflicting interpretations and skilfully mobilised; I can't help but feel a grudging respect. But I still won't be voting for her. 

Post-script (15/12/13)
Oh, how tricky images can be. So in an interesting twist, I realise now that I have both misread the image and jumped to conclusions (as have many others in relation to this picture). In the image, Nyad is not sipping water, but is actually taking in oxygen (I think) through some kind of medical mask; the image is the 'crisis' medical picture I had originally read it as before settling on the interpretation that she was feeding. This in turn suggests that the image is not in fact from the 2013 swim, but instead, is likely from the 2011 attempt when reactions to jellyfish stings caused breathing problems. It seems that the campaign for the award is looking to the wider context of her attempts to complete the swim, rather than just the 2013 swim. I think I was wrong to assume that this showed a particularly egregious case of receiving physical support in ways that contradicted her 2013 post-swim statements, for which I apologise, although it is important to note that receiving this level of in-water support in itself was not deemed grounds to pull the swim as it would be under Channel rules. Interestingly, then, I think that my overall analysis still holds true, in that that image highlights the limits to which she pushed herself and draws attention to her overcoming and endurance as the defining feature of her swims, rather than any questions about the rules governing the swims. I also think that the act of campaigning so publicly using these images and logo still can be seen as a gesture of defiance to detractors. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Part III: Rehab....this time with thumbs....

It is December 2013, just over 15 weeks post-MIMS. Last week, I was able to take my first pain-free freestyle stroke. I only did a very tentative 100m, but still.... progress at last.

Things began to change about 6 weeks ago, when I went to see a sports physio who is physically located within the University of Leeds and who tends to the sports scholars within the university as well as to stray university-based lame ducks like me. On our first meeting, Sophie gasped in horror at the extent to which my shoulders are pulled forwards, although she also noted that my shoulder and back muscles are strong and in good shape, with "nothing sticking out". I felt oddly, unjustifiably proud, trying not to dwell on the possibility of having things "sticking out". Sophie's approach to physiotherapy is very direct and thumb-oriented. In short, the goal was to "re-set" the joint by releasing the muscles across my chest and into the front of the shoulder, and then strengthening the muscles at the back of the shoulder to hold the joint properly in place. This, I was told, should release the impingement, allow the irritation to go down and get me back in the water in no time. Rather ominously, she also warned that if there wasn't any improvement within a few weeks, it was probably a sign that something more fundamental was awry and I would need referral for an MRI and specialist. And with this warning still hanging in the air, with me lying prone on the massage table, she dived in, thumbs first.

As anyone who has subjected themselves to sports massage / physio will know, the pain associated with this particular "therapy" is exquisitely intense. In my mind, the pain is a kind of mustard green - not sharp or hot....just nauseatingly unpleasant. Unlike other treatments where pain might be a sign for a  practitioner to stop, pain is a green light to a sports physio - the successful location of a particularly painful spot is simply a prompt to dig deeper, to chase the pain along the particular muscle or tendon. In the days that followed each session, I developed green-brown bruises, my skin sore to the touch, healing just in time for the next round. To complement the thumbs, I was given daily exercises - simple, gentle stretches at first, then more pronounced stretches to build on my increasing shoulder mobility, and now strengthening exercise to build the muscles at the back of the shoulder to better support the joint. I do them every day, twice a day. It is training like any other, but a sorry substitute for the pleasures of swimming.

But there is no doubt - after each visit, my shoulder inches another step towards recovery. It is slow at first, and then suddenly, last week, I realise that I am throwing on a jacket without so much as a twinge, or reaching sideways to pick up a file without the slightest aggravation. I'd been doing kick-only sets in the pool for a few weeks, finally able to hold a kick board out in front of me, but with this realisation of unnoticed recovery, I head to the pool and do a session of gentle drills. I lie on my side, fins on, lead arm out in front in a streamlined position, switching sides at the end of the lane. After 10 painfree minutes of this, I try taking 6 kicks, then taking a single stroke, rotating into the streamlined position on the opposite side; 6 more kicks, and another stroke. I focus all my attention on getting my arm in the right position and am careful to avoid actively pulling or putting strain on the shoulder. But still, after lengths and lengths of this drill, there is still no pain. I switch to every three kicks, and still no pain. At the end of the session, I take off the fins and swim 100m full stroke, hypercautiously. It feels unbelievably weird - as if I had been taken apart and then not put back together properly; nothing seems to work in co-ordination with anything else. But if you take a 15 week break, I suppose that's inevitable. But it feels so amazingly good to be able to do even this small amount.


I had my final session with Sophie last Friday, and my shoulder was so transformed that she struggled to find anywhere really painful to dig into. Progress indeed. And with that, and a list of exercises to do, I was discharged and ordered to go forth and start swimming....but only very gently, building up slowly. I am determined to be disciplined about it, even though we're off to Lanzarote next week, where the temptations of the glorious clear-blue sea await. And in January, I have an appointment with Swimsmooth coach, Emma (Active Blu) to start fixing the stroke problems that almost certainly underlie all of this.

So in my wildest hopes, this is the conclusion to my rehab narrative - a shoulder restored through the painful but effective ministrations of Sophie and her thumbs. There are absolutely no guarantees, of course, and my shoulder still feels precarious and fallible, but for now at least, it's off to the pool I go.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Part II: Rehab...

Early October, 2013
It is 6 weeks post-MIMS, and I still can’t swim. I am beached both by my physiotherapist’s proscription against swimming for the foreseeable future, and and more definitively, by the inability to swim without pain. My shoulder still bites when I raise my arm above my head, make a forgetful lateral movement outwards to reach for something or swing on a jacket. It’s no longer the hot, fiery breath of pain that I felt during the swim, but a sharp tweak; a warning. On my first physio visit, I explain how the injury happened and how I'd kept swimming on it, and he responds with a weary laugh. He tests my range of motion in a variety of postures; I signal when a movement starts to cause pain with a small wince or declarative “There!”. He tests to see if I have lost any power in the arm, looking for tendon tears; he instructs me to resist the pressure he applies against different parts of my hand and arm. Everything is intact. He says that if he could put a camera inside my shoulder joint, it would probably be very red and angry; when I go home, I look up arthroscopic images online and visualize my irritated tendons, repeatedly snagging between bones. I have a diagnosis now: a shoulder impingement….or swimmer’s shoulder as it is also tellingly called. And I have a comfortingly mechanical account of my injury to work with; the narrowed space between the top of the humerus and the acromium traps the tendons, causing more swelling….and so on. The cure: rest, anti-inflammatories, and a programme of exercises so subtle that it’s hard to believe they are doing any good. I lie on the floor, lifting my shoulder up and back, holding for a count of ten. Ten repeats, twice a day. It is my ritual; an act of faith. It’s shockingly hard to do, which offers some comfort; there’s obviously something back there that’s not as strong as it should be. Each day, I think of my exercises as another step towards recovery; it’s training like any other, but nowhere near as much fun. I recall a friend of mine - a runner benched by injury- observing that when you feel fit and well, you think it’s going to last forever, and when you are injured, you think it will never end. Indeed.

My incapacity makes me feel broken and old, and I start to feel an unexpected encroaching discomfort with my body - a bit fat, greying, peri-menopausal - that is ordinarily pushed out of sight by swimming. In the water, swimming for hours, my body feels absolutely perfect; beached, it’s so much harder to hold on to that feeling and I feel ashamed at the shallowness of my appreciation of this body of mine, and the precariousness of my d├ętente with it. But being laid up is not all bad, I remind myself; I’ve reclaimed 2-3 hours a day that I used to spend swimming, and my neglected book (this book) has leapt to life, the unexpected beneficiary of my injury.

But god…how I miss swimming.

I crave swimming. I long for it. When I think of swimming, I can feel my body reaching quietly for the movements; it imagines itself stroking cleanly through the water. Without the comforts of swimming and full of  anxiety about starting my new job, I’m unsure how to relax and can’t quite tire myself out physically. My sleep has lost the sumptuousness that long swimming delivers, and the stock of nuts and muesli bars that I keep in my desk drawer goes untouched, my appetite dulled by the sudden drop from 30+ km a week in the water to nothing. I join the gym at my new workplace and go every morning. I can (could) swim for hours, but my lower body fitness has been neglected over the long summer of swimming; after just a few minutes on the treadmill or cross-trainer, my legs are burning and my face scarlet. But I persist; it is a new body project to occupy me, inching the duration up weekly in minute increments. Progress, of sorts. I always choose one of the treadmills with a partial view over the swimming pool and I follow the swimmers travelling up and down the lanes with envious longing. I can’t stop watching, like constantly running my tongue over a mouth ulcer. I find myself compiling an uninvited critique of the swimmers below me: he’s crossing the centre line with his right hand; she’s scissoring her legs; that person’s over-reaching at the front of the stroke. I imagine myself swimming in a fantasy of liquid smoothness and technical perfection as I trudge away gracelessly on the treadmill.

And in the bottom of my gym bag -  a costume, cap and goggles. I know I can’t use them (yet?), but I like to have them there. Just in case. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Part I: Injury...

After a three month break, I thought it was time to check in with The Long Swim and give a bit of an update. It's been a bit of a whirlwind of a term, trying to get my head around my new job and the endless uncertainties of house moving / selling; I also had to take some time offline to deal with the intensifying attentions of an online troll who graduated from rude to threatening, but who, after some direct confrontation seems to have retreated quietly. So, in short, all is well, although as you'll see from what follows, things on the swimming front have been a bit frustrating. In between everything, I've been working away on my book - Immersion - and in particular, I've been writing the auto-ethnographic sections that punctuate the discussion. These sections use my own experience of training and swimming as a jumping off point for exploring the broader sociological questions, and most recently, I have been writing about my experience of injury and rehab in light of my ongoing post-MIMS shoulder problems. Drawing directly from these auto-ethnographic segments from the book, this first post - one of three - describes the experience of acquiring the injury; the second installment focuses on the early stages of rehab; and the third updates to the present.


I knew that I had hurt myself. In spite of my determined denial, in the weeks running up to the MIMS Quiet Swim, there had been niggly bite to my left shoulder the morning after long training swims; nothing serious, but a sense of not-rightness that I was guarding cautiously. It would be fine, I had told myself; just the lingering effects of a hard season of training. But somewhere around the top of the Harlem River, my shoulder started to grumble. It was easy to ignore at first, then swelling in imperceptible increments into something sharper and deeper than the previous warning nips. I tried to focus on holding my stroke, keeping my hand below my elbow and my elbow below my shoulder at the front of the stroke before the catch. I suspected that the problem lay in the pernicious stroke defect into which I habitually fold as fatigue sets in - a sinking left elbow at the front of the stroke followed by the slightest sweep outwards with my left hand before the catch and pull. Holding my stroke as it is supposed to be helped, boosted by a couple of ibuprofen to take the sharp edges off the pain. By hour 7, flying down the Hudson in the clutch of a generous current, the pain was becoming hard to ignore, but the water was flat and calm, making it easier to maintain an effective stroke. I focused on keeping my head in line with my body, rotating only along the long axis, a single goggle-lens and a popeye-mouthed breath out of the water; this helped me to avoid my bad habit of levering myself up slightly on my left arm when I breathe to the right, cocking my head up out of the water and placing strain on the left shoulder. The subtle flaws in my stroke, repeated tens of thousands of times, were being sharply illuminated by the unfolding injury; I let the pain correct me, and took a quiet vow of a winter drilling to fix my faults. It felt manageable still, and I was buoyed by the growing certainty that I was going to finish the swim.

We hit rougher water half way down, the wind blowing against the tide and churning the river. The kayak danced in the waves and I heard Jeff (a whitewater kayaker at heart) whoop with delight at the ride. After the predictable comforts of flat-water swimming, I struggled for balance, my whole body now actively in play to stabilise me in the water. The work of getting hold of the water in that mobile environment sent grinding pain down my arm. Relax. Don't fight the water. At some point, my recovering left hand clipped the top of a wave and was smacked backwards, pulling my arm with it; my shoulder flashed with white, hollow pain. It had a different quality now - bigger, hotter; every stroke a hot breath of ache from shoulder to elbow. More drugs....only two hours since the last pills, but I didn't care. I visualised them killing the pain; literally. I tried to focus on my stroke, on the kayak, on the piers of Manhattan flying past as the swift tide carried me down towards the finish.

But I knew that this time I'd really 'done' something, and that to carry on swimming was to entrench the injury. It is always a choice; to stop and prevent further damage, or to carry on swimming and pay the consequences later. But with only an hour to go and the towers of lower Manhattan clearly in sight, sharp and shining in the late summer sunshine, there was no decision to make. I knew that I had a year without long swimming ahead of me - I would fix it then. For now, I would swim, happily trading the pain and the inevitable rehab for the longed-for completion of this swim on the most beautiful of blue-skied days.

** this post was edited to position it as one of a series of three, rather than two as originally planned.