by Michela Musto
It’s a warm, sunny afternoon in southern California, and the swimming pool at the Sun Valley Aquatics Center (pseudonym) is bustling with activity. I’m listening to Coach Elizabeth explain the daily workout to a group of twenty-five highly competitive youth swimmers. Today, the eight through ten-year old boys and girls will be swimming several 200-yard Individual Medleys [IMs]. As I have learned while conducting 9 months of participant observation research and 15 semi-structured interviews with the swimmers, in this type of workout—called racing “for times”—athletes swim a distance, such as 50 or 100 yards, as fast as they can.
The first several swimmers complete the 200 IM in the following order: Sophia, Nick, Jon, Allison, Lesley, Cody, and Joanna. Before starting the next interval, Elizabeth reminds them to race the people swimming in the lanes next to them. Halfway through the 2nd 200 IM, I see Sophia look to the side, gauging where she is in relation to the two closest swimmers, Nick and Jon. Sophia finishes first, followed by the two boys. Before starting the 3rd one, Elizabeth tells Nick and Jon, “Boys, faster on the first hundred. Don’t let Sophia get so far in front of you.” Nick looks up at Elizabeth and nods.
When kids engage in mixed-gender athletic competitions like racing “for times”, kids often interact in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, within the United States, it is often assumed that boys are “naturally” stronger and better at sports when compared to girls. So while racing “for times,” Sophia could have teased Nick and Jon for losing to “a girl,” or Jon could have told Lesley that “girls suck” at swimming. However, in the course of my research, I never saw girls and boys interact antagonistically while racing each other.
In fact, I found that athletes did not associate swimming with gender hierarchy or difference. When talking about racing swimmers of the other gender, boys like Cody told me “It doesn’t matter . . . it’s just, like, the same thing” if he loses to a girl or a boy. Similarly, Chelsea explained to me that boys are “not always faster [in swimming], sometimes they can be slower.”
In swimming, the girls and boys compared times—a relatively transparent measure of ability. If the athletes were playing a team sport like basketball or soccer, where athleticism is determined by skills like dribbling or blocking, it may have been easier for the athletes to overlook the girls’ ability. But while comparing times, the swimmers were frequently provided with concrete examples of girls beating boys and boys beating girls, making it clear that the girls’ and boys’ abilities overlapped, thus allowing swimmers to undermine gender stereotypes.
However, before and after practice—when coaches were busy working with other swimmers on the team— the kids continued to interact in ways that reinforced gender stereotypes. After a team fundraiser, for example, I watched Katie, Jon, and Cody spend 10 minutes hitting one another with foam swimming “noodles.” Another time, towards the end of the swim meet, several boys filled their swim caps with water and tried splashing Lesley and Grace. Because of these antagonistic interactions, boys and girls told me that spending time with athletes of the other gender was “not fun,” “awkward,” “annoying,” “awful,” “super uncomfortable,” “gross,” “kinda weird,” and “really bad and really messed up.” In this unsupervised setting, swimmers continued to stereotype girls and boys as being fundamentally different from one another.
However, a sense of gender hierarchy was still missing from swimmers’ antagonisms. I did not see boys provoke antagonistic interactions more frequently than the girls, nor did the boys control more space on the pool deck. Furthermore, the girls never shied away from confrontations with the boys. Instead, the girls seemed confident in their ability to interact as equals. Once, for example, after Nick dumped what he described as “ice cold” water on Sophia’s head, she got “revenge” by pouring red Gatorade on him. If Sophia had believed the boys were stronger than the girls, she may have been afraid to retaliate in this manner.
Consequently, my findings suggest that when individuals enact more equitable gender relations in one context, aspects of these gender relations may “spill over” into other settings. During practices, the girls may have developed strength and confidence from racing against boys. This may have allowed them to be more expansive in their appropriation of space and more confident with the boys out of the pool. Similarly, the boys’ in-pool experiences of losing to the girls may have helped create a baseline of respect for the girls outside of the pool, making the boys less inclined to invade the girls’ space. The spillover effect likely weakened as the swimmers entered situations further removed from the swim team, but the swimmers’ in-pool experiences appeared to reduce the overall degree of gender inequality at the pool.
Michela Musto is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Southern California. Her paper, “Athletes in the Pool, Girls and Boys on Deck: The Contextual Construction of Gender in Coed Youth Swimming,” is published in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.