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Dr Karen Throsby

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

Becoming a Channel swimmer: embodiment and identity in an


extreme sporting sub-culture
English Channel swimming is, by virtually any measure, an extreme sport,
requiring extensive and rigorous training in order to develop the physical and
psychological endurance necessary to sustain hour after hour of swimming in a
frequently hostile environment. It requires significant investment – financial,
personal, physical, temporal - and yet, it is an inherently uncertain venture,
where even the most meticulously prepared swimmer can be thwarted on the
day by poor conditions, and physical or psychological difficulties. Furthermore,
while careful preparation combined with professional piloting skills, can
mitigate many of the risks inherent to the challenge, it remains a risk-laden
activity with potentially very serious consequences. Nevertheless, for many
swimmers, a solo Channel crossing remains a significant and deeply meaningful
goal to which they are willing to devote considerable time and energy. For a
sociologist, this combination of risk, extremity, bodily transformation,
passionate commitment and profound uncertainty among a small group of
individuals brought together around this singularly out-of-the-ordinary sporting
goal constitutes an exciting arena for research.
This sociological research aims to explore people’s experiences of becoming (or
trying to become) a Channel swimmer. In particular, as the title of the project
suggests, I am interested in the process of training to swim the Channel, as well
as the swims themselves; I want to look at the everyday work of making a body
that can do (or try to do) something out of the ordinary. My research is
concerned with the costs and benefits (financial, physical, personal, social) of
that bodily work, and what it means to be a prospective, successful or
unsuccessful Channel swimmer. In many ways, training to become a Channel
swimmer is completely in line with contemporary values which endorse
physical activity and investing in the body – as is evidenced by the dramatic rise
in mass participation endurance sporting events such as urban marathons,
triathlons, and the recently inaugurated Great Swims. However, it also deviates
in some regards from those values as a result of the extremity of Channel
swimming, its inherent risks, and also in the kinds of bodies that it produces. In
particular, non-elite sports policy and practice in the UK is strongly linked to
concern around rising obesity rates, with weight loss repeatedly cited as a
primary goal for engaging with sport (even in the absence of evidence for this as
an effective weight loss strategy, with 80-95% of all diet and exercise based
weight loss efforts failing in the long term). However, in the case of Channel
swimming, body fat tends to be valued rather than repudiated, and is
purposefully acquired and maintained in the course of training, whilst at the
same time maintaining necessarily high levels of health and fitness. From a
sociological perspective, this constitutes an opportunity to challenge the
dominant assumptions of health, education and sport policy that “fit” and “fat”
are mutually exclusive categories, and to question the policy framing of popular
sporting engagement primarily in terms of (anti-)obesity. Therefore, in addition
to providing an opportunity for exploring the particular values and practices of
the extreme sporting sub-culture of Channel swimming, this research provides
opportunities to highlight other, more positively framed, motivations outside of
anti-obesity policy for engaging with sport (e.g. confidence, self-esteem,
strength, co-ordination, flexibility), and a chance to think in more inclusive
ways about what counts as a sporting body in contemporary society.
The research is exploratory in nature, and consequently begins from a number
of broad-ranging questions that will be refined / added to as the research
progresses. These starting questions are:
 What motivates people to train to become a Channel swimmer? How are
success / failure defined, understood and experienced?
 What practices and knowledges are necessary to the process of becoming
(or trying to become) a Channel swimmer? What are the costs and
benefits (financial, physical, personal, social) of engaging in that process?
How are those practices and knowledges acquired / shared / learned?
How is the process of training understood and experienced by family and
friends?
 To what extent is it possible to talk about a Channel swimming
community? How are community values and practices shared, negotiated
and maintained?
 How can the purposefully fat embodiment of the Channel swimmer help
us to think critically about the contemporary repudiation of body fat?
 In what ways is the process of becoming a Channel swimmer gendered?
 How can the process of becoming a Channel swimmer contribute to new
ways of thinking about people’s everyday engagement with sport and
physical activity?

Research methods
The research will make use of a mix of qualitative research methods. I am
training for a solo crossing in August 2010, and will be using my own
experiences of the process, and of the swim, to generate an auto-ethnographic
account that will enable me to investigate through my own body what it means
to train to swim the Channel. This data will be complemented by collecting
accounts from as wide a range of individuals involved in Channel swimming as
possible, hopefully including prospective, successful and unsuccessful
swimmers, their friends and family, coaches, beach volunteers, pilots and
observers. The data collection phase of the project will run through to the end of
2011, and my goal is to gather together the widest range of experiences and
perspectives possible, from both the UK and overseas, in order to get the richest
picture possible of the process of becoming (or trying to become) a Channel
swimmer. All of the data that I collect, including online postings, will be treated
as confidential, and in the subsequent written reports (and hopefully, a book)
based on the research, all contributions will be anonymised to the greatest
degree possible (although Channel swimming is a small world and this may not
be 100% possible with some of the higher profile members of the community).
People can participate in any of the following ways:
 Blogs and personal websites: those documenting their experiences online
can give me consent to add their postings to the data set.
 Offline journals: many people document their experiences in the form of
journals, or annotated training logs, in various offline formats. These
could be shared either in their entirety, or selected parts, either on an
ongoing basis, or once the swim attempt has been concluded. This could
include one-off accounts of particular events, or retrospective accounts of
the experience of training and swimming either specifically for this
research, or written for a different context (e.g. a media report).
 Interviews: these can happen in a number of ways – on the telephone or
in person. I am hoping to be able to interview some swimmers before the
outdoor season begins in order to get a longer view of the process. I will
also be at the weekend training sessions in Dover regularly throughout
the summers of 2010 and 2011, and hopefully, these will provide plenty
of opportunities to meet people and interview them face-to-face.
In addition, to my local training venues in the West Midlands (lakes and
swimming pools), and the training weekends in Dover, I hope to conduct
additional research, where possible, at various long-distance training camps.
These will provide an opportunity to advance my own training, to learn more
about how Channel swimming knowledge and practices are communicated and
acquired, and to meet and speak with both prospective and experienced Channel
swimmers. Furthermore, if I am successful in obtaining research funding for the
project, I also hope to add an international dimension to the research,
incorporating trips to the US (esp. California) and Australia to meet, train with
and interview past and future swimmers.
If you would like to participate in the research or have any questions about it,
please do not hesitate to contact me by e-mail at k.throsby@warwick.ac.uk .