Shelley Taylor-Smith: Dangerous when wet

I (Manda) heard about Shelley Taylor-Smith from Paul Newsome (of swim smooth fame) when he referred to her as his mentor in the run up to his Manhattan Marathon swim, which he won. It wasn’t for a year or 2 later that I got wind of her book and promptly tracked a copy of it down.


Whereas the book tells the story of Shelley’s life up to 1994, her swimming career kicked off in earnest after she was awarded a scholarship to the university of Arkansas in 1982, so the majority of the book is about her dominance in marathon swimming from then.

I loved this book. There was a lot of things I could relate to whether it being places where I have swum, the love you get from the guys when you beat them or the feeling of getting stronger the longer the swim but there was a 20 year gap between the book being written in 1995 and me reading it in 2015. So 20 years later, have things really changed that much in Woman’s marathon swimming?

Things that have changed since:

· Marathon swimming is now an Olympic event

Shelley mentions her desire for marathon swimming to be in the Olympics.  Shelley believed the media coverage her swimming was gathering would only help get marathon swimming in the Olympic programme. I think she was hoping that it would be a 25km or longer event in the Olympics but I hope she is happy with the 10km being there instead (even if we still haven’t got the 1500m for women yet…..what’s that about?!)

· Water quality in New York has improved… we think!

Shelley had to contend with condoms and dead rats during her multiple Manhattan swims and in 1984 Karen Hartley swam past a dead body. Fortunately during our 2012 Manhattan swim we didn’t seen anything like that, the threat of the east river monster was enough for me to handle.

· Men and Women’s now have separate world rankings

At one point in 1991 Shelley was the best in 25km combined world rankings. Not just best female, THE BEST SWIMMER. Shortly after they decided to split the rankings. Evidently the boys just couldn’t handle being chicked. Grow some lads…Grow some.

· Equal prize money for men and woman

Despite beating the men outright she would normally receive a smaller prize. Some races did offer a large prize for the “outright” winner but evidently they weren’t expecting Shelley to turn up and whoop ALL the boys butts, even if she occasionally did! As the swimmer’s representative at the International Marathon Swimming Association she fought for the equality in pay that we are now have.  FINA offer equal prize money in both the openwater world cup series (10kms) and the grand prix series (>10km).

Things that haven’t changed since:

· The water quality in Rio is poor

With RIO 2016 fast approaching there are still concerns about the water quality. Shelley when swimming there in the 90s got dysentery and this seemed to be a theme of any south American swim she raced in. She ended up in being horrendously sick 3 times after racing in Argentina and therefore, vowed never to return until they improved the water quality. Kerri-Anne Payne, the British 2016 10km swim hopeful, did a test event in Rio in August 2015 and supposedly no swimmers were sick post the race so hopefully the concerns re water quality won’t be founded.

· Marathon swimming can be more mental than physical

Yes you obviously can’t swim for hours and hours without being fit and lots of training but without the mental strength you aren’t going anywhere, let alone anywhere fast, long and cold. Shelley puts her mental strength down to being a woman and the pain she learnt to endure through years of back problems. She suffered from a childhood back problem that meant she was in a brace for 2000+ days, as well as multiple car crashes and temporary lower body paralysis from excessive training.

· Jellyfish are horrid

Shelley worked with her sports psychologist before her 25km world championship win to be able to deal with the excessive jellyfish. He managed to get her to think that the jellyfish were her friends and that the stinging was them kissing her. I am not sure what she thought was happening when she bit into one during the race.

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