Sharkgirls and Mermaids: A Sport Rivalry

May 16, 2013

by David James Brock

The lake is safer than this:
the hope for someone else’s failure.

– “Sharkgirl vs. Mermaid”in Tanis Rideout’s Arguments with the Lake

There’s the kernel that becomes the obsession. I must win, I must be first, I must be the best. There’s the training, mantras making the muscles, a strengthening of the anatomical abstracts: guts, nerves of steel, that lion’s heart. But then there’s an obstacle: someone else believes that they too must win, must be first, must be best.  They bring talent, sure, but can also soar like an eagle – they might even have the eye of the tiger. Sport rivalries begin here, at the recognition of that other, equally obsessed human-animal-machine. Similar, but hopefully not too similar: ties, stalemates and split decisions are terrible mythmakers. 

There’s melodrama in the rivalry. Success and failure parsed by milliseconds, millimetres and buzzer beaters. Frazier beating Ali, then Ali beating Frazier twice; Martina Navratilova winning forty-three to Chris Evert’s thirty-seven in eighty career head-to-head matches; Magic Johnson’s five championships1 to Larry Bird’s three, playing out sport’s potential to create figureheads for social, geographic and economic rivalries. With time, everyone could be a winner, but at the time…behold victory’s thrill, defeat’s agony.

For the fans, the drama is enhanced when rivals truly hate one another, isn’t it? There’s simplicity in something so definite, and friendship and respect just confuse a rivalry. How delicious, that Michael Jordan et al. could truly hate Isaiah Thomas, conspiring to keep him off the 1992 US Olympic Men’s Basketball team. Give us the red meat of Tonya Harding (allegedly, probably2) conspiring against Nancy Kerrigan’s knee with a steel baton – did that really happen among figure skating’s grace? How cruel that Ben Johnson should ultimately lose (sigh) to Carl Lewis, who provided Canada our joyous loathing. We don’t have to work at the meaning of a hated rival.


Before her, I was the story, all stained lips
and canted hips. The
it girl
– “The It Girl” in Tanis Rideout’s Arguments with the Lake

Then there’s the Sharkgirl and the Mermaid: Shirley Campbell and Marilyn Bell, teenagers vying to become the first to swim across Lake Ontario in the summer of 1954.  It is a purer athletic rivalry, the goal of precedent setting. In this contest, Lake Ontario is conquest; it is Everest, the Moon, the four-minute mile. It begins outside the scrutiny of fandom and politics and commerce.  It is private, poetic pursuit – until it is elevated by successes and failures.

That Marilyn Bell (the Mermaid) achieves the feat first and Shirley Campbell (the Sharkgirl) not at all, in the parlance of sport, demands that the Mermaid wins and the Sharkgirl loses.  The Mermaid succeeds where the Sharkgirl fails. And to the victor, yep, those spoils. To Campbell, her almost success: those ones recounted in barrooms, nostalgia for great moments of the past, just missed. I just needed a bit more luck. She wasn’t so great. I coulda been a contender. Her most public failure happened young, and there was no rematch.

So we forgive Campbell if it takes a while, or a lifetime, to recover from the weight of the lake. With time, everyone wins if the rivalry is remembered. Tanis Rideout’s Arguments with the Lake is a place to imagine two sides winning, even if the game has long left the water.


1. Six, including Michigan State (Johnson) defeating Indiana State (Bird) in the 1979 NCAA final.
2. She was never charged.


DAVID JAMES BROCK is a poet, playwright, and librettist, and the author of two poetry chapbooks: Gasmask Summer and Black Metal Melody. His works for opera and stage have been performed in Toronto, Edinburgh, and San Francisco. His first collection of poetry, Everyone is CO2, will be published in spring 2013 by Wolsak & Wynn.


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