“Racing against men helped make me what I became,” recalls Shelley Taylor-Smith, the 7-time women’s world professional marathon swimming champion. “They pushed me…and the men certainly did not like to lose to a woman.”
“I agree,” said Stephani Sharp, a pool and open water swimmer from California. “I just to had to race my brother and all these older guys every day, twice a day. They went fast, so I had to keep up. They helped me get better.”
It is a fact that women are better than men in marathon swimming, on average. While the best men are still faster than the fastest women (with world-class men about 7 minutes faster than world-class women over a 10 km distance), the average woman is better in open water over the average man when the distance is at least 10 km. This is entirely unique in the world of sports. Women out-performing men does not happen on the basketball court, running, cycling, in race cars, surfing, kayaking, or on the fields of soccer, field hockey or bowling. Not now, not then, not in the foreseeable future.
But in the water, things are different. In the open water, competition not only are able to hold their own, they start to put men in their wake. Even in the pool, the female gender from young to old are able to hold their own in long, tough pool workouts at most levels. But things really start to turn around when the two genders get in the open water.
It does not matter if the women are competing against men in fresh water or salt water, calm water or rough water, cold water or warm water. When the distances are at least 10 km, datamining the results from races around the world and across channels, the facts demonstrate that the tables are turned. Women may not start faster, but they sure sustain their momentum and end up faster on average than men in marathon swims. So much so that the average woman crosses the English Channel 32 minutes on average faster than a man. That 32 minutes equates to nearly a mile.
In other words, the average woman has dried off, removed her lanolin, downed a cup of coffee and some food, taken celebratory photos with her crew, and is fully dressed before the average man emerges from his English Channel crossing.
“It is so cool to hear that,” says Swim Across America co-race director Pam Lazzarotto. “I can see it in the pool and open water when we swim in Long Beach. The men can always out-sprint me, but if the sets get longer in the pool, I can stay up with the men.”
The 51-year-old svelte swimmer originally from Toronto, Canada, continues, “And when we get in the bay or ocean, somehow it is even easier to stay up with the men. They still don’t give me an inch.
I don’t do channel swims or marathon swims, but I can see how women have the psychological make-up to be the fairer sex when it comes to the open water.”
In a dynamic environment where things do not always go according to plan, many open water swimming women have a built-in mechanism to deal with adversity, discomfort and frustration. “Things don’t always go to plan or how we like on land either. We get frustrated with relationships, career opportunities are not always what we hope for, and just plain ol’ childbirth is an issue than men never face. These experiences are analogous to dealing with oncoming currents, relentless surface chop, harsh cold water, and a marine environment that is always changing.”
As 6-time Canadian Olympic swimming coach Deryk Snelling once said to Lazzarotto over 35 years ago, “Water is an equalizer for men and women.”
At the same time, there is a healthy respect between the genders when it comes to the water, whether in the pool or open water. Both sexes know what tough pool workouts feel like and they both understand how risky, dynamic and challenging the open water can be. Anne Marie Ward, the 2011 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year, once profoundly described the bonds and interdependence between her and her all-male escort crew as she was swimming across the treacherous North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. “The boys will bring me home.”
Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association