Karen Throsby is a swimmer and a sociologist – Professor in Gender Studies at the University of Leeds. Her intellectual credentials are huge, having published on issues of gender, feminism, technology, the body, identity, and obesity. She is passionate about marathon swimming, and her CV of international distance swims is truly outstanding, taking in the Catalina Channel and Twenty Bridges Swim around Manhatten, as well as the English Channel. In 2008, as she started training for her English Channel solo swim, she took this as a unique opportunity to bring together her combined research and swimming interests. This new research took the form of a sociology of distance swimming, involving Karen in fieldwork across the year or so of training and preparation. Dover figured large, a location where marathon swimmers train. As did a van and plenty of food to share. Marathon swimmers love to eat, and post-swim eating was a usual site of interviewing and data collection. Her research question was a simple one in some ways – how do you make a body do something as extraordinary as swimming the English Channel? The answer was much more complicated than just training. The English Channel is 34 kilometers across at its narrowest, but tidal currents make sure that swimming across it is never ever this short. However straight they try to go, swimmers mostly swim a sine-wave across this stretch of the sea, adding many more kilometers. They do it without a wetsuit, so the rigours of this long distance swim are compounded by hours of cold water immersion. They burn buckets of energy and need regular feeding, while in the water, without touching their pilot vessel. She interviewed and interacted with many people also undertaking the same challenge, and in addition to swimming the Channel, wrote a very scholarly book called ‘Immersion: Marathon Swimming, Embodiment and Identity’, which takes the lid off of the identity and body-shaping process of becoming a marathon swimmer. In this podcast we talked about what it takes to make a marathon swimmer, and about Karen’s swimming interests more broadly.
Listen to the podcast here