Julie Moss, Diana Nyad and the expansion of what it means to be a female athlete

To be a female athlete in these times is to be a living, breathing part of a tectonic shift in the cultural narratives told about what it means to be a woman.  Certainly the path has not always been a straight shot, but progress never is. But make no mistake about it, progress is happening and it continues to happen every single day.

I had the opportunity to reflect on this two weekends ago, when Brian and I settled in to watch a replay of the 2012 Ironman World Championship in Kona.  The Kona special is always inspiring, not just because of the professionals but also because of the age-groupers who found ways to squeeze in training around full-time jobs and families so they could qualify.  I suppose you could say this is what qualifies for fitspo in our household.

One of the most notable aspects of the 2012 special is that it marked thirty years since Julie Moss’ iconic finish at Kona.  At the time, Moss was a 23-year-old graduate student in exercise physiology who decided to compete in the Ironman as part of her thesis research.  She led much of the race, all the way until she was about two miles from the finish line, when her body started refusing to cooperate.  She was just a few hundred yards from the finish when her glycogen stores ran out and she bonked.

What happened next is the stuff of legend:

There is so much to marvel over in this video, but perhaps what I find most interesting about it is not what is happening inside the frame but rather the context in which this is all taking place.  All of this happened in 1982, a full two years before women would be able to run the marathon in the Olympics for the first time.  In fact, the world’s governing athletic bodies were reluctant to encourage women to run long distances – or even middle distances – for decades.   Women were not allowed to run anything over 200 meters until 1960, and even then it wasn’t until 1980s that an event longer than 1,500 meters was established for women.

That reluctance is commonly attributed to the public reaction to the 1928 Olympics, when several media reports about the 800 meters race indicated that many of the racers had collapsed after the race.  From Go Feet, an excerpt from an Australian news report at the time:

Several women athletes in the final of the 800 metres race at the Olympic sports at Amsterdam fell by the side of the track, apparently suffering from the dangerous strain. This has aroused adverse medical comment here. One specialist declares that women are not built physically to undergo the strain of races. Nature made them to bear children. They cannot rid themselves of fat to the extent that is necessary for the physical fitness demanded for feats of extreme endurance.

Compare that to the reaction to Moss’ glycogen-depleted finish fifty-four years later.  I’m sure many people watched her and were concerned – and understandably so, as bonking is usually a sign that something went terribly wrong and is not something anyone should seek to emulate – but many people also watched her and were inspired.  I imagine their thoughts are similar to mine: Could I do that?  Do I have it in me? Could my will ever be strong enough? Would I have given up, even with victory in sight?  And I imagine that, like me, they got into endurance sports because they wanted to find out.

As far as I know, there were no calls to ban women from Ironman distance triathlon.  (How could they, considering that the same clip shows the eventual victor, Kathleen McCartney, crossing the finish line looking as fresh and energetic as if she’d just taken a quick jog down the street?)  If anyone was wringing their hands over the state of Moss’ future as a childbearer, the record doesn’t show it.

What the record does show, however, is that she inspired thousands of people to get into triathlon, and in the process she expanded what it means to be a female athlete. She showed that it’s okay for women to suffer in visible and ugly ways, to collapse gracelessly, to do awkward things with our bodies and to make people feel uncomfortable and tense just by looking at us.  In fact, she not only showed that it was okay to do these things, but that it could actually be incredible to behold.  Otherwise why would so many cite her as their inspiration for wanting to take on an endurance event that still seems outrageously difficult?

United States endurance swimmer Diana Nyad is greeted by a crowd as she walks on to the Key West, Fla., shore today. (J Pat Carter/AP)

Moss’ moment happened over thirty years ago, but today we had the chance to see that expansion of what it means to be a female athlete once again, when Diana Nyad finally swam across the Florida Straits, plunging into the water in Havana and emerging in Key West, 110 miles and 53 hours later, clutching the accomplishment she’d obsessed over for longer than I’ve been alive.  Photos of her showed her smeared with white goo, her face strapped beneath a mask meant to protect her from jellyfish stings.  We’d seen those jellyfish stings after her previous attempts, thick ropes of fiery red lashed across her skin, and they were ugly.  And when she came out of the water, her mouth was swollen from being immersed in salt water for more than two days.  No room for vanity in the sport of open-water swimming.

And not only that, but this was her fifth attempt at the crossing.  She’d allowed the world to see that she was a woman obsessed, that she had a drive that concerned even people who were close to her.  That kind of naked ambition is confusing in a woman even when it is applied in pursuit of goals commonly considered acceptable – money, fame, belongings –  never mind an endurance feat doing something like open-water swimming in shark-infested waters, which understandably terrifies large swaths of the public.

Perhaps even more fascinating is that she did all of this at the age of sixty-four.  We live in a society that wants women to always be pretty and well-groomed, to have manageable ambitions that are socially acceptable, and to finds ways to defeat biology so we always remain twenty-six years old.  And yet here Nyad is, upending all of those expectations about what it means to be a woman and in the process showing the world that D.L. Stewart of the Dayton Daily News was right, that “the toughest athlete in the world is a 62-year-old woman.”  (And he said that two years ago. It’s even truer today.)  She showed that athleticism is not the sole provenance of the young, and that experience can count just as much as energy.

While watching Nyad’s last few miles on a live feed earlier today, I had the same sort of goosebumps-and-tears feeling I get whenever I watch that clip of Julie Moss.  Part of it is the thrill that always comes when you are witness to the creation of history, and part of it is also the way superhuman feats can give us glimpses into the shared humanity that supersedes all other divisions, but deep inside, I also know that part of it is seeing that those superhuman feats are being performed by women.  It feels like a thumb to the nose against all of the forces that still, even at this late stage of history, insist that the story of women is one in which they play supporting roles in service of others’ pursuits of greatness.

None of us may ever lead an Ironman or swim a hundred miles, but the desire to pursue our own greatness – to be the best possible versions of ourselves – is something we can all emulate in our own lives.

30 responses to “Julie Moss, Diana Nyad and the expansion of what it means to be a female athlete

  1. What’s also amazing about Diana Nyad emerging from the water after this incredible success: she looks like an older woman, exhausted and beat down after this feat. There’s nothing romantic about the effort she put into this. She looks real.

    • I noticed that too, and I appreciated it. I always love seeing people when they actually look like people, and not the highly stylized and mediated versions we normally see. It was particularly poignant with Nyad because she was also at this moment of vulnerability after performing this incredible feat. Superhuman and yet human at the same time.

  2. I LOVE seeing all of this. In watching the 2012 Ironman at Kona did you see “Iron Grammie” finish? She won the US national championship for Ironman in her age group in NYC the same week she started to collect Social Security. And went on to Kona. She is an amazing friend and an inspiration to me!

  3. I have to admit that I’d never heard of Julie Moss until now. That was incredible to watch (and scary!).

    I just saw this video and thought of you. I don’t know your opinion on the whole Blurred Lines controversy, but I thought this was funny nonetheless (sorry for the massive link!). http://www.3news.co.nz/Students-parody-performance-blurs-lines/tabid/418/articleID/311517/Default.aspx?fb_action_ids=10153215546670066&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%2210153215546670066%22%3A466706263437005%7D&action_type_map=%7B%2210153215546670066%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

    • I saw this! I loved it. Sometimes I think attempts at feminist satire fall flat (often because it’s too earnest and grad-school-y) but this had me cracking up. Brava to those ladies.

      (I am conflicted over the song itself. The lyrics really bother me and I was horrified when I saw the uncensored video, but damn if it is not a catchy song.)

      • I think I’m on the only person on the planet who hated this song from the first moment I heard it! What can I say, I’m not hip with the cool kids 😉

  4. I love that clip of Julie Moss. Did you know that according to Iron War (a book I just read about the rivalry between Dave Scott and Mark Allen in the 80s), it was that clip of Julie Moss that inspired Mark Allen to get into Ironman. Great post!

    • I DID NOT KNOW THAT. (Also how was the book? I want to read it!) That makes the fact that Julie Moss and Mark Allen were married for several years even more romantic.

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  6. I saw brief footage this morning of Diana Nyad reaching the shore at the end of her swim, and I loved her words. Such an amazing, powerful inspiration to women of all ages!

    • Most definitely. And not just for us women, but I think a lot of men are inspired by her as well. At least, my husband is. Don’t tell anyone but I totally caught him tearing up as he watched her get out of the water.

  7. There is a fantastic TedMed talk she gave — after her last failed attempt — about her planning and how she still completely defines herself as an athlete. Very few women 60+ are visible in the culture/media as active, powerful, determined, indomitable! As we age, we need women like these as our role models — not just size 00s Botoxed into fixed grins. Not everyone wants to compete as fiercely as she does at that age, but women 50 and beyond sink into invisibility when we really need to see them being cool, interesting and achieving whatever crazy goals still appeal.

    A friend of mine in her 70s (I’m guessing,..maybe 80s?) just published her book about abortion and the “bad old days” when it was mostly illegal…where we’re headed again. I love knowing cool, kickass women who are a bit further down life’s road.

    • Is that the one about jellyfish? I need to go dig it up and watch it now. I’ve been meaning to watch it for ages.

      I agree completely, by the way, about the need to see older women like Diana Nyad in the public eye. The fixation on youth to the exclusion of all else is really one of the more distressing trends in our culture, because it erases so much of what is good and righteous about growing older: mental toughness, wisdom, maturity, the power that comes with not giving a fuck. There are so many women like that in the world but if you went based solely on what you see reflected back at us from the media, you’d never know it.

      I’ve actually been thinking a lot about how the mainstream media was basically set to ignore what she was doing, but that they were unable to do so a) after she actually did it and b) when they realized just how many people really cared. I may write about this today, in fact.

      • Not giving a fuck is exactly why women like her are so scary! We can’t be controlled or mediated or Botoxed into skinny/polite conformity.

        I want to write a lot more stories about amazing women 40+…but there is often a big yawn from the 25 yr old editors (female) and male I work with. Who wants to read about your parents? It drives me nuts.

        The boyfriend of a friend of mine — who posts on FB INCESSANTLY (pix and deets) about his effing cycling (and now hers as well) actually asked on FB today if Nyad’s determination was narcissistic. WTF? What the fucking fuck? (sorry but really…..)

        The rush to demonize/erase/deride female ambition — esp. when we use our bodies for OUR exclusive use (not saving or helping others) — is appalling. While we all gawk at guys who do this routinely.

        The culture is so toxic.

        The Nyad video is also really interesting because she recorded her talk after a bunch of failed attempts — and was proud of having done them anyway. The applause was weak…Americans want ONLY winners. But we often fail repeatedly before we are able to win.

      • Oh man co-sign every friggin’ word of your comment. Every fucking word.

        And your friend’s boyfriend is touching on a sore nerve of mine, which is that narcissism is a pejorative that is usually only applied to women. You see it all the time with women who write about themselves, how they are narcissistic navel-gazers while men who write about themselves are using the particular to examine the universal and blah blah blah. UGH it makes me mental.

        And about your last point – I had heard and seen a lot of people kind of rolling their eyes at her most recent attempts, which I found really annoying. There’s no tolerance for failure, no understanding of the fact that everyone who ever achieved anything has probably failed a hundred times over in the process. I personally think the fact that she kept going is admirable and awesome, and that a lot of people – myself included – can learn a lot from her in this regard.

  8. Thank you for writing about this. When I saw the news article on the BBC, I clicked over here to see what you had to say, now I have to go and watch that Julie Moss video.

    Diana Nyad is truly inspirational.

  9. I’m liking what I’ve been reading so far in your blog, Caitlin! I really appreciate your view and hope I and others can emulate your attitude towards female athletes. I’ve been exploring inequality on my blog with a very neutral tone…reading this is like a breath of fresh air– a reminder that I am a woman, here and now, and I can aspire to do that kind of stuff!

    By the way, I’d love it if you’d check out my blog and tell me your reaction. I’m not getting much feedback and I’d appreciate hearing other people’s perspectives.

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  11. I’ve seen the Welch & Ingraham crawl before, but never the Ellen Ross one. Chilling. I’ve been in glycogen depletion before but never to that extreme.

    A small part of me kept yelling at her to stop trying to run. She’d get up, start walking, be reasonably ok, then try to run again only to fall. I wonder if she just kept walking, would she have crossed the line first?

    As for Nyad, I love reading about older athletes doing things I can’t even image. It gives me hope. Too many people use age as an excuse. These athletes prove them wrong.

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