Silken Laumann: Unsinkable

Fifteen for 15 #7

Silken Laumann’s was the first name I wrote down for Fifteen for 15. She stands out to me because of her physicality and the way it has been used by advertisers, which I’ll talk about below. Her tenacious comeback from injury to win a bronze at the Barcelona Olympic games is also very memorable. Because I’ve studied Laumann and I remember her career so well, I jumped at the opportunity to read her new book, Unsinkable: My Untold Story when HarperCollins offered to send me a promotional copy.* The book is often surprising and very personal. Reading the book hasn’t changed my reason for putting Laumann on my Fifteen for 15 list, but is has challenged me to revisit my thinking on athletes’ bodies and their status as role models.

unsinkable-cover

I try always to refer to female athletes by their last names. As all Intro to Women’s Studies students learn, professional and high-profile women are often called by their first names. This linguistic pattern reflects our society’s tendency to diminish women’s power and authority. And yet I find myself wanting to refer to Laumann as “Silken” because she seems so approachable. I know that, like many great female athletes, Laumann’s approachability is only one part of a more complex story of discipline and determination, but even then…

The Coles notes are this: Laumann competed in four Olympic Games (1988-1996) for the Canadian Rowing Team and medalled in Los Angeles (double sculls), Barcelona (single sculls) and Atlanta (single sculls). She was also World Champion in 1991 and medalled in numerous other international events. Many Canadians will remember Laumann best for the 1992 Olympic Games when within only a few months she recovered from a horrific accident that shredded her lower-leg to win a bronze medal. They may also remember an embarrassing incident where she was stripped of a Pan American Games medal after taking Benadryl, which contained pseudoephedrine, a banned substance at the time. If you’ve encountered Silken Laumann more recently it is likely in her role as motivational speaker and life coach.

Laumann is memorable to me because of her advertising campaigns for Subaru and IBM from the 1990s. Studying these ads, what stands out is that they are different from earlier representations of female athletes. Ads from before 1990 tended to really (really, really) feminize athletes, picturing them with vases of flowers and emphasizing that they had soft skin (1970s) or were skilled with housework (1950s). By comparison, Laumann’s Subaru campaign was very gender neutral, depicting her in a power suit standing in front of a car. Likewise, in her IBM ads she wore her rowing uniform, as opposed to in everyday clothing, which is rarely the case for ads prior to 1990. These images are different, even, from those of her contemporaries Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, who were depicted wearing crisp white shirts, in close-up, and heavily made up (in one memorable example).

So, part of Laumann’s significance to women’s sport lies in her very powerful public image and muscular form. Visually, her ads point to a change in in the way we view female athletes, in that she looks more like herself in advertising campaigns than do athletes of earlier generations. My sense is that representations of Laumann are not anomalous, but she doesn’t represent a complete cultural shift in the way we visualize female athletes, either. She did pave the way for women like Catriona Le May Doan and Clara Hughes whose physicality has also been prominent in their campaigns for Cheerios and Bell.

One of the reasons Laumann’s physicality interests me is because she has made candid comments about the way sport has shaped her body. Though I had to look back at my notes to get the quote, I remember being struck by Laumann’s comments to a Toronto Sun reporter in 1993. When asked about her body, she replied: “when I started becoming muscular as a rower, I really had a problem with it. In the beginning, I thought, ‘Oh this is ugly.’”** Talking about her perception of herself as an adult, Laumann said in another interview, “I love being strong…it’s a feeling of power, the feeling of being strong and looking strong is so great.”*** I like the candor of these quotes because they capture the way that our feelings about our bodies can shift, over time, and sometimes in the same day.

Unsinkable is a surprising read. Laumann has a much darker past than I imagined. She had and has a complicated relationship with her mother, who was verbally abusive to “Little Silken” who feared bringing friends home from school and, at times, believed she might come to physical harm. Laumann also speaks candidly about her ongoing struggles with body image and mental health, as well as her divorce and current family relationships. I’m not sure why these parts of Laumann’s story surprised me. Athletes are only human, after all. And yet, Laumann’s candor was unexpected. I thought, perhaps, the book would be written more along the lines of a self-help tome (though there is a fair share of talk about “her journey”). Or, perhaps that it would offer greater detail on her sporting accomplishments (it has that for sports bio junkies, you know who you are). But mostly the book is surprising because it frames Laumann’s successes by talking about the not-so-great moments when she wasn’t as inspirational, perfect, or even as normal, as she might seem. I won’t give everything away, but I was left with a feeling that I know “Silken” and also that she is a lot more like the rest of us than we might think. She’s working on it and this process is her new brand: life coach, writer, mom and human.

A question the book raised that I am still trying to answer is: why do athletes become our models for health and well-being? Why did I assume Silken Laumann was such a super-human that she wouldn’t struggle with food or body image like so many women? Athletes are required to be disciplined, they endure so much pressure, that they seem like they can manage any kind of mental stress. Certainly this is why Laumann and so many athletes turn to successful careers as motivational speakers. This perceived perfection must also relate to the bodies of athletes, because they seem to have so much power and control over their physicality. It is an interesting turn of events, then, to see Laumann and Clara Hughes talk publicly about mental health and depression. In doing so both women are helping to change the conversation about these topics, and perhaps also our perception of what it means to be successful. There is a gender dimension here, for sure, in that in Canada it is the high-profile women coming out with their experiences. It also seems that many of those athletes who do speak publicly about depression do so only after they’ve retired from competition (Hughes being an exception, she competed in 2012 after joining the “Let’s Talk” campaign).

I am curious to see how this link between mental health-public advocacy and sport plays out. I hope it matters to people and I hope it makes a difference that athletes are choosing to share their stories. Reading this book I realized that I had an overly simplistic view of Laumann and I’m still finding it hard to grapple with how this personal information informs my “academic” view of the rower. The book is a reminder that the “afterlife” of famous athletes can really shift how we understand what they accomplished during their careers. My reasoning for putting Laumann on my list hasn’t changed, and neither has my understanding of those advertising images from the 1990s. But, I think the book does shift how I, and others, will read future representations of Silken Laumann.

*Note: I was contacted by a HarperCollins publicist and asked to review Unsinkable. I accepted the book because no conditions were placed on what I decided post.

**Moore, Micki, “Smooth as Silken,” The Toronto Sun, 7 February 1993, 18.

***Olver, Bob, “Silken Steel,” The Toronto Sun, 13 July 1991, 48.

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