Recently I have read a lot of books on swimming — which, if you knew me, would seem unexpected. Having a fear of water after a near-drowning accident as a child, I never became a swimmer. Not even a so-so swimmer: I managed to learn what we in Norway call “Grandma swimming”, a sort of laborious and slow breast swimming with the head as high above water as humanly possible and the feet similarly low beneath.
But many years later, as an adult and a father, this slowly changed when my oldest son started attending swim practice. Even before taking up swimming as a sport, he had surpassed my abilities by a decent margin. After he became serious about training he almost instantly dwarfed me and my abilities.
As parents of swimmers know, being a swim parent involves lots of driving to-and-from and perhaps even more waiting. Sometimes I killed time waiting for him outside the pool area, looking in through the large glass windows that separated spectators —aka annoying parents — from swimmers. From a distance I was amazed by the progress he made month by month.
One summer day a year into his training I stood on a lake’s edge watching him swim happily towards the opposite side. When he passed the middle a couple of hundred feet out, I was struck by an uncomfortable thought: If anything happened to him now, I wouldn’t be able to help. And had I tried, I would probably need help myself.
In that very moment I decided to something about it. I immediately signed up for a beginner’s swim course for adults. But ten weeks and ten lessons in, hanging from the pool side panting uncontrollably, I was struck by a second thought: The progress I’d seen in the children was impossible to match for us, the slightly overweigh 40+ year old newbies. It would take time and patience to become even a so-so swimmer. And, as it turned out, it would take a lot of patience: A few years have passed and only recently have I started to feel that I master freestyle slightly — if swimming 50 meters freestyle without passing out constitutes mastering, that is. My technique is still laughable, breath continues to be an issue, and I haven’t begun to tumble turn or back stroke yet.
So now I know: This takes time.
But to boost my motivation I turned to books — like I do every time I start becoming interested in a new subject. These are not instructional or teach-yourself books, but inspirational books about the topic I’m interested in. In this case about swimmers that does unimaginable feats and/or about the history and cultural impact of swimming.
As they work as inspiration for me, maybe they will for you too. That’s why I give you quick reviews of five swimming related books I’ve read the last months. They are: Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox, The art of resilience by Ross Edgley, Why we swim by Bonnie Tsui, Open Water by Mikael Rosén, and Grayson, also by Lynne Cox.
Lynne Cox: Swimming to Antarctica
This is the autobiography of the accomplished open water swimmer Lynne Cox. It starts in the seventies when Lynne’s family moves from the US east coast to California, so that the children can maximise their swim training. It’s here Lynne discovers that she’s a better long distance swimmer than a sprint swimmer and gradually switches to open water swimming.
Soon she participates in her first long distance swim —a 20 mile swim from Catalina island to mainland Los Angeles— and discovers that she has the potential for record-breaking pace. It seems like she’s a natural at the discipline. Later she will learn that her body is unique in preserving body heat in cold water conditions.
Next up are more feats, such as swimming the English channel. That one earns her an invitation to Cairo to swim the Nile, etc. While all this is happening, she starts to form an idea of becoming the first to swim from the US to the Soviet Union. Lynne sees this as a way to establish bonds and reduce tension between the people of the two countries. Alas, hardly anyone shares her enthusiasm, so large parts of the book covers the quest of getting the necessary permits to cross between two island on the Alaskan and Siberian side of the Bering strait.
That process took maybe ten years and is, to me, the book’s heart and soul. Swimming aside, this tenaciousness is a testament of her ability to persevere not only in open water but also the intricacy and bureaucracy that is international politics. As such I think Swimming through the Iron Curtain would be a more fitting title than Swimming to Antarctica. But the book is written chronologically and ends with a swim to the Antarctica, so I guess that’s why they chose the book’s title.
A weakness with the book is that it’s unusually light, almost coy, is when it comes to Lynne’s relation to other humans. Her parents, which must have been an important part of her support, is peculiarly described as almost faceless entities in her vicinity. As for romantic relations, she occasionally alludes rather vaguely to how she enjoys the company of a certain individual or how she admires the muscular body of a fellow swimmer, etc. But relations are never described deeper than that, and never more than with a few sentences. That means that this autobiography is unusually auto: Her book is a story about herself and her inner journey powered by external journeys — swims that most people can only dream of.
But no matter what the story is called or what weaknesses it may have, it’s a great read about an extraordinary human. That’s why I recommend this book.
Ross Edgley: The art of resilience
I don’t remember how I stumbled across Ross Edgeley and his “Great British Swim”, but I guess Google’s impenetrable algorithms had something to do with it. Regardless of how — when I did discover him (2018) he had just started his Red Bull sponsored swim around Great Britain, and posted weekly videos about his progress on YouTube. He synchronised his efforts to the tides for the duration of the swim: For 157 days he swam with the currents for six hours and rested the following six hours aboard his support boat. Non stop. For the entirety of the journey he never once set foot on land.
When he started the journey the farewell was rather low key, as the turnout consisted of family and friends. When he finished he’d become a household name and was welcomed by hundreds of other open water swimmer as well as large crowds on the beach. And that was well earned, if you ask me: 157 days — initially they thought they use half of that time — and 2884 kilometers (1792 miles) later, he (and his crew) had completed a feat that I think will stay uncontested for a long time.
In short, Ross’s story is an exciting one and he writes really well about it. That part of the book is impeccable. Strangely, the weakest parts are where Ross’s background as a sports scientist comes in. He’s eager to share theories about how to train, explain how endurance vs strength works, suggest workouts, etc. Every chapter ends with these science based musings. But they’re not integrated well into the storyline — yes, these too are filled with Ross’s enthusiasm, but all they do for me is punctuate and slow down an otherwise engaging story.
What I find peculiar, however, is that if you never watched the youtube videos, in the book it seems as if he got the idea and that everything fell into place by itself. In real life a Red Bull sponsorship was what made the swim possible. They kept him fed and enabled him to keep a boat and a four person crew with him at all times during the 157 days (but he’s gratuitous towards the boat’s captain and attributes much of the success to him).
It’s also interesting that this book is the opposite of Lynne Cox’s memoirs in the sense that what Ross is mostly concerned with is the external journey itself. There are some hints of musings about how the swim influenced his personal development, but they are few and far between.
In the grand scheme of things, though, these are small flaws. If you manage to fight through the sports science this is a great read!
Lynne Cox: Grayson
This book covers one very special day in Lynne Cox’s life — a day that weren’t covered in her autobiography. One early morning around daybreak, the seventeen year old Lynne is midway through a solitary open water swim practice. Suddenly she experiences unusual disturbances in the water, only to discover that it’s caused by a baby gray whale.
What seems to be a fun encounter quickly turns into a more serious matter: Communicating with an experienced elderly man on shore, she realises that the baby whale has been separated from his mother. If she swims ashore the infant will follow her, strand and die. The story details how Lynne slowly coaches the whale out to deeper water in the hope that they’ll by chance will find his mother.
Where Swimming to Antartica was a book as much about Lynne’s inner journeys as her outer, Grayson is even more of an inner journey. The book’s style reflects this. Grayson has a far more lyrical, introspective and even pensive form than her first book.
That’s not only positive. As mentioned it covers the events of this one morning only. The only perspective is Lynne’s told in the present tense. To stretch a small story about one morning from one person’s perspective to the necessary 150 pages, a lot of the text is inner monologue. In my opinion that slows the narrative down, and not in a good way. The inner monologues become fillers that doesn’t drive story.
What’s worse is that much of the inner monologue doesn’t seem entirely believable. The amount of depth and detail that Lynne allegedly remembers events and thoughts with, is more than anyone — with the possible expection of Marilu Henner — can recall some 30 odd years later. In addition many of the thoughts and reflections the 17 year old Lynne supposedly has, are astonishingly mature and filled with knowledge she possibly couldn’t have had at the moment . Scientific facts about gray whales, for instance. These are the thoughts and retrospections of a person in their late forties. There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and retrospections from late forty-somethings — after all I’m one myself. And had they been presented as such, as present day reflections of that extraordinary morning in her teens, this would probably not feel alien to the story at all. But the the choice to attribute the thoughts of a soon-to-be 50 year old to a 17-year old ends — to me —up as a significant stylistic crash.
With that in mind, I can’t help but think that if her editor had cut most of this, they’d end up with a tight and great story driven book for adolescents/young adults. As it is now, it’s not. But if you’re a less critical reader than me you’ll get a reasonably engaging book about the inner and outer journey of an almost superhuman swimmer. Should you only want to read only one book by Lynne Cox, however, Swimming to Antartica is the better choice.
Mikael Rosén: Open Water
Swedish author Mikael Rosén’s Open Water is not only about swimming itself, but also about swimming’s history, technique, science, cultural implications, racial issues, and more. Although you’d imagine that a mashup of all that would end up… well… mashy, the book is surprisingly clear and interesting despite juggling many sprawling subject. As such the book really delivers on its subtitle The History and Technique of Swimming.
Although this book talks about specific swimmers such as the pre-WW2 olympian Johnny Weissmuller, the first man to swim across the English channel, captain Matthew Webb, or modern athletes like Michael Phelphs, this is really not a book about individuals. These people are used to illustrate topics such as improvement in sports science (Weissmuller vs the Japanese swimmers that followed) or the history of open water swimming (captain Webb). Consistently interesting throughout, the most interesting part may be the second of the total eight chapter. That section explores prejudice — how female swimmers started to appear on the scene and suddenly break records previously held by men, or how a white, racist population’s negative reaction to black swimmers at public pools contributed to the establishment and strengthening of segregation laws in the southern states of the USA.
This tour de force of interesting and surprising facts reads a little like if Bill Bryson had written a book about swimming, though less humorous. But still, it’s almost on that level. Most books are not perfect, however, and this book is no exception: Written three years before Ross Edgeley’s The Art of Resilience, it shares the latter’s insistence of closing each chapter with a little sports science, training programs, suggestions of drills, etc. They don’t bother me as much in this book — as opposed to Ross’s — as this book is not a chronological story driven narrative. Therefore the training parts fits a little better into the whole. But the book wouldn’t suffer if they’d been edited out.
All in all that’s minor critisism, so I recommend this book wholeheartedly.
Bonnie Tsui: Why we swim
It’s not a coincidence that this book comes last. The reason is that this book is best described in the context of the previously mentioned books.
Why we swim is in a way an amalgamation of the science/history aspects of Mikael Rosén’s Open Water and the introspection of Lynne Cox’s books. But where the latter describes her personal growth in retrospect, Bonnie Tsui documents her quest for personal growth through swimming more or less as it happens — as a part of the process of writing the book itself it seems.
Bonnie Tsui kicks her book off with the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a fisherman that was the sole survivor after a fishing vessel sank in the frigid winter waters off Iceland. Together with two mates he started to swim towards land, but not long after he was the only one still swimming. Against all odds Friðþórsson survived a six hour swim in six degree celcius water.
For Tsui this becomes the entry point to the history of swimming. Her book is structured around five main topics, going from Survival, Well-Being, Community, Competition and ultimately to the more metaphysical and meditative subject of Flow. She takes on a tour of swimming history, starting in the stone age and the first documentation we have of humans swimming, ending with personal musings about not why we swim, but why she swims.
And this inclusion of a very visible I throughout the book — the chapter about Friðþórsson is not only about Friðþórsson but also about her meeting him and her participation in a swim honoring him—means that you can’t separate her personal journey from her exploration of the history, culture and science of swimming. Granted, Open Water is more hard core when it comes to facts, but the unique interspersion of the author personal story and the overarching topics of the book, makes this the most beautifully written of the five books I’ve mentioned here. Read it!
So… do you become a better swimmer by reading? Of course not. Only practice can improve swimming (although you may pick up some valuable hints to how you can improve through pure instructional books, such as Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion).
But this being November 2020, the year of Covid-19, all swimming pools are closed and I’m unable to practice and improve for a while. This may be the case for you too. But while you wait for the pools to open again or the summer to heat up the sea to a more welcoming temperature, spending some time on one or more of these books wouldn’t be the worst thing to do.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll come back to the water more inspired than before.