A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from a successful swim across the English Channel bearing gifts – namely a pink silicone swim hat that bore the Dover training group’s mantra: “When the going gets tough, the sprinters get out,” and a bumper sticker emblazoned with channel swimming’s central conundrum: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”
Many of us marathon swimmers have long struggled to express our passion to those outside the sport, but thankfully, we no longer have to try – Karen Throsby, associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds has done it for us in her new book. In the fittingly titled Immersion, Throsby has deftly managed to solve both sides of the marathon swimmer’s riddle, owing to her astute observations of our social interactions and her own experiences within the sport.
Throsby describes this book as an “autoethnography.” One part autobiography to three parts sociological study, this is immersive academic research in every possible sense. Throsby earned a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council to conduct her field research, which involved travelling to several sites around the world where marathon swimmers congregate and train, including Jersey, Cork, Gozo, San Francisco, San Diego and Dover to observe and swim with other marathon swimmers.
Throsby’s work is substantiated not only by her academic credentials and previous publications within the sociology field, but also by the fact that she’s a card carrying member of the club she chose to study in this work; she’s completed the Triple Crown and several other major marathon swims over the past several years. Although for some researchers, being so deeply committed to and literally immersed in the subject they’re studying could render their observations hopelessly biased, in Throsby’s case, her involvement enables her to bridge the channel between entrenched insider and scholarly spectator.
Further, Throsby’s own experiences ground the book and provide relatable entry points to her academic work. Throughout Immersion, which addresses all aspects of being a marathon swimmer from the initial becoming one to the politics of the bodies that ratify swims, Throsby seamlessly intersperses journal entries and field notes about her own swimming. It was during her unflinchingly honest self-assessment passages that I felt like I could have been reading my own swimming biography. Her lovely use of imagery and language in these vignettes sucks the reader in with an anecdotal punch, from which she transitions to a more 30,000-foot view of the sport in general, contextualizing her powerful personal experiences.
Although this book is an academic text, riddled with potentially distracting parenthetical citations and a million-dollar vocabulary that sent me scrambling for the dictionary a couple times, Throsby’s clear and studied voice rises to the surface. In reading Immersion, I not only gained some insight into why I swim, but I also felt like I was reading a highly accurate description of my tribe. More than once, I thought to myself, “Boy, has she figured us out.”
With her sociologist’s hat firmly wedged underneath her swimmer’s cap, Throsby illuminates the sometimes difficult-to-articulate world of marathon swimming.
Manchester University Press