Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton

I am most at home in the water. I’ve been around pools my whole life: at swimming lessons, whiling away summer days in my grandparents’ backyard pool or at lakeside cottages, as a synchronized swimmer, a competitive swimmer, a lifeguard. I was not born in a bathtub, but it seems that way, that I swam into this world and have been swimming through it ever since.

When I’m in water, my mind drifts and something primal takes over that knows just what flick of an ankle or sweep of an arm is necessary. My body instinctively twists into new shapes and patterns, unfurling in a subconscious choreography. I feel supported, embraced by a buoyancy that extends beyond the physical. I am something other than my land-locked self — elegant, fluid, free, and peaceful.

It was this innate love that led me water sports, and eventually to competitive swimming. I spent all of my high school years (five) in this sport. By my last two years, that meant being at the pool eight times a week, climbing out of bed at 4:45 in that viscous early morning darkness of winter for my first practice of the day. It meant perpetual exhaustion from pushing my body to its limits, or if not that, far enough to be hopelessly tired. It meant thousands of meters a day, insatiable hunger (mostly literal and sometimes metaphorical), sweating chlorine even when I was on land.

I swam at my club’s highest level, though I was never that good. I tried hard, but was not as passionate or as talented as others. Did I love it? It’s hard to tell, the pleasure so fleeting, the pain so persistent. I loved my teammates, my band of brothers, who shared the rigours of practice, the crushing early mornings, the in-jokes and strange obsessions, the triumphs after the race or the cries in the shower afterward. I loved the water. I loved the beautiful symmetry, the incredible lightness, of my body racing at its fastest, when the water was like air, and you were more bird than fish. But looking back at the sport itself? I’ll admit to some ambivalence.

It’s the reason I was so excited by Swimming Studies, why it affected me enough to shake me out of my blog torpor to write this.  It captures all of that, and more. The highs, the lows, the ambivalence of a sport where training is unfailingly grueling and success can be fickle and elusive. Leanne Shapton (author of the much loved Important Artifacts) immerses you completely in the swimmer’s life, conjuring the smallest details: ritual foods, types of goggles, the complex notes in the smell of a coach or a teammate.

Those physical details are a huge part of the book, but like the swimmer who stroking along the surface, she always has an eye to the depths beneath them. Take, for example, her description of one morning practice:

The interior of the Olympium hums in the mornings, the aural scale amplified by the density of the chlorinated air over the water’s surface. Mid-practice we do lungbusters, fifty meters underwater. We push off at one end glide, then kick soundlessly through the blue. At the far end we release the air in our lungs, and our bubbles rush up in a muffled crash. As our heads break the surface, the pool echoes with our breathing. The whole process is overseen by the silent sweep of the pace clock swallowing time, rest, and seconds of air before we inhale and slip under again.

It’s not only an incredibly evocative passage, but I think reflective of the book as a whole, the prose embodying these intersections of effort and grace, the repeated immersions below the surface and into the past.

Swimming Studies is just what it says it is: a series of studies, scenes, impressions, and stories that alternate between Shapton’s swimming career itself, and events years later, in which the ripples of those years persist. Since Shapton goes on to become an artist, the metaphor is apt, for as she retraces these scenes you get the sense that like an artist she was preparing for something, for a greater work of art she’s still trying to grasp. (The book also includes some art: paintings of pools and swimmers and photos of her vintage bathing suit collection — other pieces of the puzzle she is trying to assemble.)

But artistic analogies aside, I first saw these vignettes through a swimmer’s eyes: I recognized the drifting, meditative trance that happens while churning meters into kilometers, the fragments of consciousness that break up the monotony. But even further, in these oblique entries into her past I recognized the familiar pattern of every practice, circling back again and again, tracing the same paths in the hopes of new results. We circle back so we can move forward, to transform that pain, that effort, that conflict into something greater.

That constant striving comes through so clearly in Swimming Studies: for the right clothes, for faster times, then for artistic accomplishment, for appreciation and love, and ultimately, in the act of writing this book, to reconcile the person who was — a swimmer, day and night, on land and in water — with the person she is now, an artist who can’t quite leave the pool behind. For swimming is not just a hobby you give up, a skin you shed — it is knit into your very muscle fibres, and may relax but will always remain. In those teenage years the self-discipline, the endurance, the focus, and the relentless striving shape you as much, if not more than family or friends.  And for Shapton, this is more true than for most: it’s also a road not taken, but one that she can’t stop looking back at.

I think Shapton hits the right metaphor at the end of her book, when she compares swimming to a relationship: “I think about loving swimming the way you love somebody. How a kiss happens, gravitational. About compromise, sacrifice, and breakup. The heart can suffer more than a few not-quites, have poor timing. We are outtouched by others, can psych ourselves out of victory, we lose, win, become our results, find our places and rank.” We have loved the same person, Shapton and I. Her affair may have been longer, deeper, more joyous and more torturous, but it was the same lover nonetheless. We both still carry it in our very bodies — in the breadth of our shoulders, in our muscle memory, in the way a whiff of chlorine elevates the heart rate. It’s an affair we can’t shake, and perhaps we shoudn’t. If we return to the beginning, Shapton nailed that indelible connection in her very first, perfect sentence: “Water is elemental, it’s what we’re made of, what we can’t live within or without.” The relationship is simple, but understanding it, and its legacy, is a lifetime sport.

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3 comments to Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton

  • Jen,

    Excellent and evocative post. I too love swimming and feel liberated in the water (I’m a Pisces, too!), but I just grew up swimming. I’ve never had lessons or swum competitively or trained at all. And since I’ve been an adult, I can probably count on one hand the times I’ve been swimming now that I mostly find the water too cold. Sigh.

    Still, I loved it so much, both inside and outside swimming, that Shapton’s passages and your own experiences remind me of my own. I don’t have to be the kind of swimmer you guys were to feel the pull of this book. Partly that’s because this is great writing. I’d read this book, even though I’m no longer an athlete of any kind.

    Aside from that, this is the part that got me most: “…to reconcile the person who was — a swimmer, day and night, on land and in water — with the person she is now, an artist who can’t quite leave the pool behind. For swimming is not just a hobby you give up, a skin you shed — it is knit into your very muscle fibres, and may relax but will always remain. In those teenage years the self-discipline, the endurance, the focus, and the relentless striving shape you as much, if not more than family or friends. And for Shapton, this is more true than for most: it’s also a road not taken, but one that she can’t stop looking back at.”

    I relate to this and have been for a few years now trying to reconcile who I am now with the person I was. Too much to say here. But that has really hit home for me, that part of your post. Something I should perhaps explore in writing myself.

    Thank you. I love it when you post.

  • What a thoughtful and evocative post…. I was a non-competitive swimmer and then a lifeguard, and it’s true, you can never quite leave the pool behind. While my training was never quite as rigourous as yours by the sounds of it, and no where near the standard of Shapton, I can completely relate to the sentiments expressed here. I constantly feel like I’m trying to figure out my blended self (which includes the lapsed-lifeguard), much like Shapton’s reconciliation between swimmer and artist.

    And, my favourite line: “the way a whiff of chlorine elevates the heart rate” So true!

  • Chip Nikh

    I swam on swim team, although not at his caliber, and kept at it until life brought me to the tropics, on an atoll where the water was 85 degrees and visibility over the sheltered white sand bottom was one hundred feet.

    Every other day I swam a mile back and forth to a tiny sand pile, along the inside of the reef, thousands of tropical fish watching me as I burned past. I tried out low-profile goggles, wide-barrel snorkels, and shopped just-short fins, until I had just the right balance that he talks about.

    Then I built up my lung power until I could swim the mile bow-waving the surface like a giant steam locomotive. I remember that first (and last) time that I was able to hydroplane, thinking when I got back, that I’d start a whole new sport of explosive hyperaerobics by adding hand fins.

    I remember laughing at the awesomeness of that first (and last) hydroplane hyperswim in the warm shower … then I don’t remember anything else. I woke up with ice cold water pouring on my face as I slumped in the bottom of the tub, a hot icepick stabbing me in the chest with every heartbeat.
    But I survived … and came back with a last memory that will never die.

    So it’s not difficult to understand the Olympic swimmers. But then what?
    Can you imagine being Weissmuller or Phelps? What do you do for an encore?

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