(spoiler alert - this review includes comments in paragraph 3 that reveal the outcomes of the swims. Please feel free to click away and come back later if you prefer not to know in advance).
I finally had the chance to watch the recently released documentary, Driven - a film by Ben Pitterle and Brian Hall from Element 8 Productions about marathon swimming, focusing on swims by teenager Fiona Goh, novice swimmer, mother and insurance company worker, Cherie Edborg, and experienced marathon swimmer, blogger and co-founder of the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Evan Morrison. All of the swims are under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association; both Goh and Edberg are taking on the 12.5 mile swim from Anacapa to Oxnard, and Morrison is attempting the 19 miles from Santa Cruz to Oxnard. The story of the three protagonists is told through a mix of documentary footage of training and the swims themselves, first person narration to camera by the swimmers and unseen narrator commentary, all punctuated by lengthy and engaging extracts of interviews with marathon swimming veterans Ned Denison, Scott Zornig, Steve Munatones and David Yudovin. The film is visually stunning, and I defy anyone not to want to pack up their stuff and move to southern California immediately to spend the rest of their lives swimming in the beautiful waters there. I spent most of the film plotting such an escape; every cell in my body wanted to go swimming while I was watching it (but then I am currently in a very advanced state of swim OW swim deprivation and am therefore easily provoked).
I have to confess that I have been putting off watching it. The trailer for the film tends to focus on the risk, isolation, challenge and hardship of swimming; it makes perfect sense in terms of attracting the attention of potential audiences, but it's not a representation of swimming that I necessarily enjoy. But the film itself is a different kettle of fish, capturing splendidly the swirling mix of pleasures, excitement, nervousness, discomfort and occasional outright misery of a long swim. Indeed, the reality of marathon swims is that they are usually long enough to experience many emotions and sensations, the fluctuating melange of which constitutes the experience of the sport rather than any single element. Capturing this is the film's greatest accomplishment in my view.
There were many striking moments for me: the sight of Morrison floundering confusedly in the churning darkness, and the palpable despair that he was projecting through the swimming body, is painful to watch, especially in such a supremely elegant and powerful swimmer; the delight of Edberg in her accomplishments and her radiating, somewhat surprised, love of the water; Goh's bravely accepting resignation after being pulled from the water having given everything that she had to give; the attentive concern of the crews and observers tasked with taking care of the swimmers and keeping them safe; the beautiful water, its wildlife and the stunning coastline and islands. I am sure that I'm not the only swimmer who saw her own experiences - good and bad - reflected in those of the swimmers in the film, and watching was an act of constant snaps of visceral recognition and bodily memories of the triumphs of finishing, the frustrations of a goal not achieved, the torture of knowing that you could just get out, and the unparalleled lusciousness of the water.
There are also some very situationally specific touches that make this less a film about marathon swimming per se, and more about marathon swimming in southern California (and I don't mean this as a criticism - I liked the specificity and focus). To northern European eyes, for example, or anyone whose marathon swimming experience comes primarily from the English Channel, they will have been drooling at the bright blue skies, glistening water and luxuriously sandy beaches; the use of accompanying kayaks is also a practice that is alien to English Channel swimming and which (from my experience at least) fundamentally changes the dynamics of a swim. I think it's a useful reminder that even where rules are standardised across marathon swims, the experience of each swim is always gloriously particular, influenced by locally accepted practices, environments and the manifold vagaries of what happens on the day.
I had a couple of small reservations. I would have liked to have seen some female swimmers among the veteran commentators - it is great to see female swimmers play such a major role in the film, but it would also have been nice to have a woman's voice among the experts to illustrate the depth and breadth of female expertise and experience that exists within the sport, especially since both of the women featured were relative novices. I would also have liked to have heard more from the crews, who have a unique perspective on swims that is easily overlooked; indeed, the responsibility that they take on, as well as their own sleep deprivation, seasickness, cold and other discomforts are as much a part of the sport as the aching shoulders and nauseated stomach of the swimmer.
But it is a really great watch that does a fantastic job of capturing the compelling pleasures and hardships that constitute marathon swimming. You can buy it here for just under $13; swimmers will eat it up, and non-swimmers might find in it clues to what draws their intoxicated, addicted friends and loved ones to the open water. And if that doesn't pique your interest, the beautiful shots of strings of salps, passing mola mola or scores of bat rays sailing gracefully below will.