The man deliberately moves to the wrong side of our lane, stops in front of me in the water, all belly and froth, forcing me to grab the lane rope to steady myself. He is irate, hands thrashing and pointing, bellowing at me before I’ve shaken the water from my ears. I am more than six months pregnant.
“What the hell are you doing, sprinting up and down!” he shouts, gesturing wildly to the rest of the health club pool. The only other swimmers are elderly women. There are no lifeguards. He is still shouting.
I have never been so slow. But it is still too fast for this man, who advances on me as I back away. It occurs to me that if he attacks me, I am faster than him in the water (this is the entire reason he is angry), but he will be faster than me on a slick pool deck. I am scared. I leave the pool, reporting the incident to the health club. They do nothing.
Many years later in 2021, sitting in my car at school pick-up, I read a tweet by Dr Josie Perry on my phone:
“Attacked in the pool this morning for overtaking a fragile male ego. Grabbed my feet and held me underwater. Then starts yelling. Lifeguards lovely but of course it is me that has to leave as I can’t risk swimming with an aggressive man far stronger than I.”
My hands break out in sweat. I am a former international swimmer: I held an open New Zealand women’s record for three years and the sport paid for my education in the United States. In videos of beleaguered dog owners watching their retrievers charge 200 metres from the car to a muddy lake, I identify with the retrievers.
But for years, I’ve found pools a source of anxiety, and the abuse I received from male swimmers is a primary reason. As a child and into my teens, I was not a member of a traditional swimming club and I completed a lot of my training during public hours. Often my lane mates were men, and on too many occasions, one of them would have problems being passed by ‘a girl’.
I can’t count the number of times this, or something like it, has happened to me and my women teammates. I first experienced this behaviour in my early teens in New Zealand, and it continues to this day, in my mid-thirties in the UK. I am now a club runner, and I have been raced and shouted at by men I’ve passed while running, too.
My coach, who is also my father, tells numerous stories about men’s aggression when faced with athletic women. He recalls many a male swimmer “risking a heart attack in order to avoid you passing them”.
Arguably, his most successful swimmer was Toni Jeffs, a well-decorated New Zealand Olympian with many national titles, records and international medals to her name. In the middle of Jeffs’s career, he watched in disbelief as a team of male surf lifesavers arrived at the city’s aquatic centre and deliberately got into Toni’s lane, despite the rest of the pool being largely empty. They proceeded to race her.
As amusing as it could be from the sidelines, sometimes it turns violent. A lot can happen under the water that spectators and lifeguards do not see.
Like Dr Perry in her tweet on Monday, I too have had my ankles grabbed after passing men in the pool: many an angry swimmer has felt the need to tug or hit me. As a child, the violence became part of the landscape. In public pools, it was all but expected, and the most wonderful thing about moving to America was that the assaults stopped: as an NCAA swim team at Washington State University, we had our own facilities and did not share a pool with the public.
On one occasion when I was 15, similar to the incident in my pregnancy, a man charged me in the water, forcing me into the lane rope where I sliced my right ring finger on the hard plastic disks. I still have the scar: for 22 years, I’ve worn a reminder of this behaviour on my skin.
Running past a male jogger in my neighbourhood a couple of years ago, I nearly fell as he stepped in front of me to stop me, called me a “bitch” and told me to “go f**k myself.” Immediately, I was 15 again, when a middle-aged man hit me under the water, elbowed my ribs, and violently kicked in my face as I turned to swim another length.
I understand competitiveness: it defined my life. This is far from a display of healthy competition. For most people involved in individual sports like swimming, our primary competitor is ourselves, and it always comes as a rude shock to be roped into someone else’s insecurities.
Many women wrote to Dr. Perry after she shared her experience on Monday, saying that similar abuse had happened to them in the same circumstances. This is a direct result of a culture of passivity and tolerance towards male anger and misplaced ego.
Sports facilities, in particular, have a responsibility to stop letting this behaviour go unchallenged. It should not be the case that victims are routinely asked to leave when they have been mistreated, with the abuser placated and the issue ignored. The onus is on aggressive men to check their behaviour, and for swimming pools and gyms to adopt a far tougher approach towards people who behave like this, sanctioning and barring the most egregious offenders from the facilities.
In a similar way to catcalling, this type of male abuse reduces us to the sum of our parts: lesser, worthy of scorn, and worthy of a crisis of ego if an insecure man finds himself quite literally in our wake.
Jane Copland is a former New Zealand international swimmer and writer
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