When recounting period horror stories – as all women have a habit of doing – I always return to a story of having to wipe an unaware girl’s menstrual blood off a white starting block.
This story is guaranteed to shock anyone not involved in aquatic sports, but it is not unique; it is near impossible to find an aquatics athlete who cannot tell such an anecdote.
This creates little doubt as to why, despite sport offering a supportive environment for women, by the age of 14 girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys.
Womens’ fear of taking part in sport while menstruating begins in teenage years.
Research by ‘Betty for School’, who aim to create a generation at ease with discussing periods, found that 46% of women used their periods as an excuse to skip PE classes.
From 2,000 women polled, 39% admitted leaking was why they had skipped P.E., 24% didn’t take part as they were too scared of their sanitary pads being visible and 74% said that period shame had stopped them participating.
Team GB synchronised swimmer Isabelle Thorpe believes that this avoidance of sport is due to lack of education.
Thorpe said: “Without meaning to sound rude, I think it’s an uneducated view to not exercise during your period. I know girls who claim they can’t put a tampon in because they don’t have anything down there!
“You’re going to have your period for most of your life. If sport is important to you then I don’t think your period is a reasonable reason to give up.”
‘SHOUT OUT’: Synchronised pair Izzy Thorpe and Kate Shortman have both experienced embarrassing mishaps but say their sport has a great attitude
The 19-year-old overlaps her pills when competing, but still experiences regular mishaps with tampons in training.
“I am on contraceptives so I can have periods when I want to have them. It’s a lot easier when you can plan when to have a period.
“It took me so long to figure out what to do with the mechanics of tampons. My synchro partner and I are quite young compared to a lot of the girls in the team, so they all gave us advice.
“I feel everyone gets tampon strings falling out of their costumes, especially in synchro because you’re doing a lot of splits, so it’s just something that happens.
“You’ve just got to shout each other out, because you would want someone to tell you if it happened to you.”
WEARING THREE SWIMSUITS
Thorpe’s relaxed attitude towards periods is shared by her synchro partner, Kate Shortman, who credits their sport for the pair’s mindset, but admits to her own period nightmares.
“Everyone has gone through it, racing to the toilets dripping. It has happened to us so many times.
“At a competition one time I got it just before we were supposed to walk on, and blood was slowly making its way down my leg.
“I feel like because we always have our body on show it makes us a little bit more confident with them.
“You become quite close with your teammates. We train a lot of hours, so you really get to know people in that time. Everyone has periods. It’s not going to be weird if you say it because everyone has them.
“There are girls at school who are shocked I get in the pool. People will be like ‘oh, so you have a week off for your period?’”
Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane, who avoided using tampons by wearing three swimsuits when she first started her period, believes that the way to eliminate the stigma of periods is through discussion.
“The most terrifying thing I ever did starting off was put a tampon in,” she said.
Periods. All us girlos get them. They are not fun, they are not pleasant and they can cause a lot of pain and disruption to a gals day. They’re especially not fun when you’re an athlete and you have to figure out how to manage your period while training & competing. #20×20
— Ellen Keane (@keane_ellen) July 25, 2019
“The sooner you can learn to embrace your period and the sooner you can adjust to that new phase in your life, the happier you’ll be because sport helps.
“I think girls need to be more comfortable talking about periods. The conversation between male coaches and female athletes needs to be a bit more comfortable and open.”
Despite difficulties discussing menstruation with her coach, Keane insists that, among the team, the stigma of menstruation disappears, such as the fear of a visible tampon string.
“In the swimming community, it’s not a taboo to ask for a tampon.
“I feel like for me, as one of the older members of the squad, if a tampon string can be seen, you just go and casually let them know.
“I think it’s important to have everyone’s back and I think in the swimming community everyone does.
“Girls stick together.”