A Swimmer’s Perspective on Gender Equality in the Pool

By Katie Giacobbe

When I was a freshman in college, our women’s swim team got banned from wearing two-piece suits in practice because an administrator overheard someone using the pool talking about how we looked “sexy.”

Still, no mention or ban was ever given to our men’s water polo team, all of whom were wearing Speedos — swim trunks that leave little to the imagination. Fact was, they were getting as much attention as we were on campus when it came to comments about their appearance.

Growing up as a female swimmer, a sport I started participating in when i was 6, I’ve seen women in our sport associated with one of two things — sex appeal or manliness. The media comments on the looks of female swimmers they perceived as attractive, while those perceived as less attractive are referred to as manly or muscular.

Male swimmers, on the other hand, are almost always considered attractive by the media. For example, Ryan Lochte’s celebrity is built on his attractiveness. Still, his accomplishments in the pool are elevated, while female swimmers who are equally as good or better, are mainly recognized for their looks.

My university’s decision to ban us from wearing two-piece suits was intended to “protect us,” but it only “protected” female athletes. Our team had a reputation of being one of the “hottest teams on campus” that year, but the water polo team had the same reputation for so many years that for them it had become a stereotype. Still, that stereotype was ignored by the administration.

Why, then, were only our uniforms controlled and protected? I think the way female athletes, particularly swimmers, are portrayed by the media had a lot to do with it.

I have also seen trends regarding the media’s coverage of our sport in general. Swimming is not as widely popular or watched like football, baseball or basketball. It is not viewed as an American pastime that families congregate around their television sets to watch every weekend. In the media, swimming only comes into the mainstream spotlight during the Olympics.

For a few weeks every four years, swimmers who have trained their whole lives get a shot to race on primetime television for a few minutes. For a few weeks every four years, our sport gets talked about. In 2008, the world watched Michael Phelps win eight individual gold medals. In 2012, Katie Ledecky became a household name as the then 15-year-old sprung onto the world stage. This year, #phelpsface memes dominated the internet and a falsified robbery orchestrated by Lochte made the front page of CNN.

Swimming is not unpopular by any means when it is given a chance in the spotlight. Why, then, does the sport seem to go dormant for four years once the torch is extinguished? It probably has a lot to do with the lack of attention the media gives to our sport when the Olympics are not in session.

As a female swimmer for 15 years, I feel improvements can be made to the way our sport is covered. I am proud of my body, but also proud of my accomplishments in the pool. The type of uniform I choose to wear should not be limited because I am a woman, and the suit I wear to train in should not elevate my looks while undermining my accomplishments. And my teammates and I should not swim hundreds of laps a day and thousands of laps a year for our sport to only receive national attention for a few every four years.

I coached a swim club during college and after I finished my swimming career, and took pride in training the next generation of swimmers. I watched them train as hard as I did day in and day out, and I hope that, at some point during their careers, our sport will receive more attention and female swimmers are brought into the spotlight for the right reason.

It is about time we get the credit we deserve.