Eat Sweat Play: Anna Kessel Recommends the Best Books on Women's Sport
'After years of being side-lined women’s sports books are finally having their moment in the sun.'
When it comes to sport books, writing about women in sport has traditionally been relegated to the margins; but thankfully the picture seems to be changing. A sports journalist and a passionate campaigner for equality in sport and fitness, Anna Kessel’s latest book Eat Sweat Play explores how and why society has kept women out of sport and highlights the ways in which women are reclaiming both their place in sport and in turn their own bodies. Here she offers her choice of the best women's sport writing, from new expert guides to women's health and fitness to revelatory sporting histories and personal testimonies of triumph over adversity.
After years of being side-lined women’s sports books are finally having their moment in the sun. Reams of exciting new titles, all on the subject of women’s sport, are out this year covering history, celebrity and jaw dropping physical feats; they are told with humour, and pathos.
I’ve chosen some of the books I’m most excited about this year, and a couple from recent years because they were just too good to leave out. Let’s champion these amazing sportswomen, and their stories, and make sure they’re here to stay.
This is not your average health book. For a start, it lists “fanny farts” in the index (go to page 91, it’s there in the chapter entitled 'The Pelvic Floor'). And that’s the joy of what could otherwise be another impenetrable, weighty tome from a health professional. This isn’t that at all. Instead McGrattan manages to combine a light hearted, fun tone (in the chapter 'New Mums' she writes, “at the top of every good hill there’s a café”), whilst addressing some serious health issues affecting women’s lives whatever their age. When I did the research for Eat Sweat Play I was horrified at how little information there was available on women’s health, and particularly when it came to active women. McGrattan’s book takes an important leap in tackling that void. Peppered with case studies, funny anecdotes and diagrams, Sorted feels accessible for all. A bookshelf essential for every household.
It’s amazing how simply watching your sons play tennis can generate a myriad of sexist assumptions. For the longest time Judy Murray has been subjected to a barrage of ridiculous headlines, from her dress sense to her parenting approach. Now she has put pen to paper, with the help of Alexandra Heminsley, to tell her own story – and it’s a genuinely brilliant read. The inside story on the making of two tennis champions (and feminist icons), we get to meet the real Judy Murray OBE: mother, tennis coach, former player, and most recently a vocal campaigner for women and girls in sport. She’s also a massive lover of cake (which personally endears her to me greatly). Judy is the sort of person you’d wish to spend an afternoon with, down to earth, funny, spirited and bloody determined. Reading about her life, and all that she has overcome, is both fascinating and uplifting.
You wait forever for a good book about women’s swimming, and then three come along at once. Each stand out in their own way, but Diana Nyad’s autobiography is without doubt the most jaw dropping. A world record swimmer, she suddenly quit the sport at the age of 30. For three decades she did not swim another stroke. Until, aged 61, she took to the water once more to pursue a dream that had so far eluded her – to become the first woman to swim between Cuba and the Florida Keys without a shark cage. Nyad’s is the ultimate story of persistence. But there is more here than just dogged, sporting determination; this is a meditation on life itself. Truly gripping, it deserves every accolade under the sun.
A woman in her 60s who swims with sharks is a pretty hard act to follow, but Jenny Landreth’s tale of the swimming suffragettes is a wonderful account of lost stories from the canon of women’s sports history. The likes of Agnes Beckwith, whose bold swimming feats and displays in the Victorian era brought world media attention, or the campaigners who fought for women to have the right to take to the water. Landreth’s book brings these stories to the mainstream - exactly what the Women’s Sport Trust and I are trying to achieve with our Blue Plaque Rebellion campaign, to honour sportswomen from the past.
In Leap In we encounter a more personal tale. Alexandra Heminsley’s narrative style in Running Like A Girl won her a legion of fans and here she takes her readers on a new journey in learning to swim. Battling her fears of open water, she weaves in her own story about the trauma of IVF. Her commitment to championing even the most unlikely women to take the plunge comes through strongly, and I especially love all the practical and funny advice about how to start swimming.
At a time when we continue to debate whether men and women can play sport together (see John McEnroe’s hapless recent comments about Serena Williams) it feels appropriate to halt the speculation and listen to a girl who has been there and done it. Niamh McKevitt was the first female in England to play mixed competitive football at Under 13’s level, and she continued right through until the age of 18. This is her story, and it’s an eye-opener. While we tend to obsess over whether a woman or a girl can physically compete with a man or a boy, McKevitt rightly reminds us that it’s the peripheral stuff that so often creates the greatest hurdles. The parents making comments on the sidelines, the sporting infrastructure, and the rigid tradition of football culture. As a mother of two young daughters - already encountering some of these attitudes around who should be able to play our national sport – I love that what shines through most is McKevitt’s absolute love of football. Her story is an inspiration.
Martine Wright’s autobiography lands at a time when, unfathomably, terrorism is beginning to feel like a constant presence in our lives. It is frightening, and it is hard not to think about the future, to worry about the state of the world. Unbroken shows us everything that terrorism cannot destroy, life after atrocity, how Wright turned the aftermath of a terrorist attack into personal triumph. And ultimately how sport changed her life.
Her story is inspirational, of course it is, and I read much of it with a lump in my throat. But it is also laugh out loud funny. Ghosted by the brilliant Sue Mott, Wright has a talent for telling a story, transporting us right into the moment, gifting us the very images that she recalls – whether that be the horror of living through a tube bombing, or the sheer joy and delight of experiencing London 2012 as a Paralympian seven years later. This is edge of your seat storytelling, a truly special book, it deserves every plaudit.
Before London 2012 it would have been inconceivable to imagine that a female boxer could become a household name. But, overnight, that’s exactly what happened when Nicola Adams won the first ever Olympic gold medal in women’s boxing. Recently turned professional, the “smiling assassin” – as Adams is known – is a familiar face, but she has kept her personal story close to her chest, until now. Here, the Leeds-born fighter tells the story of her struggles to reach the top – from living with asthma as a child, to growing up with domestic violence, fundraising to make ends meet, and becoming an LGBT role model. Adams’ ascension is living proof of the stunning trajectory that women’s sport has been on in recent years. Now that’s worth celebrating.
Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives by Anna Kessel is available in paperback (Pan, £8.99).
Anna Kessel is a sports journalist, acclaimed author and vocal campaigner on equality in sport. A rare example of a female journalist in her field, Anna published Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Your Life as a passionate polemic aimed at bringing sport to the female masses.
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