Life­long swim­ming as art and ob­ses­sion

SWIM­MING STUD­IES By Leanne Shap­ton Blue Rider. 320 pp. $30

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - book­world@wash­ Ni­cola Joyce is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and blog­ger who lives in Eng­land. She has twice swum the English Chan­nel.

How do you give voice to a silent, of­ten soli­tary pur­suit? Like any­one else who has ever loved to swim, you un­der­stand what it’s like to be drawn to water. And you know how dif­fi­cult it is to put that pull into words. It’s not enough to de­scribe the phys­i­cal en­joy­ment that swim­ming gives you, nor is it suf­fi­cient to ex­plain the com­fort­ing de­tails of a swim­mer’s rou­tine. A deep-seated love of swim­ming is not learned: It’s some­thing pri­mal. It’s with you for life.

Through im­mac­u­late ob­ser­va­tion and evoca­tive rec­ol­lec­tion, Leanne Shap­ton’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal “Swim­ming Stud­ies” achieves the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble. In a se­ries of sharp snap­shots of life as a com­pet­i­tive swim­mer and be­yond, she has man­aged to find “the lan­guage of be­long­ing,” giv­ing a voice to silent hours spent sub­merged in water.

“When I swim now, I step into the water as if ab­sent­mind­edly touch­ing a scar,” she says. And it’s this ghost of a me­mory, a raised re­minder of an­other life, that “Swim­ming Stud­ies” il­lus­trates so well.

It’s a beau­ti­ful book — beau­ti­fully writ­ten and gor­geous to look at, too. And it has been named as a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle award in au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Shap­ton brings all her skills to the ta­ble: Not only was she a com­pet­i­tive swim­mer, but she is a writer and il­lus­tra­tor and has been an art di­rec­tor at the New York Times and Satur­day Night mag­a­zine. “Swim­ming Stud­ies” is dot­ted with her art­work: ab­stract im­ages de­pict­ing swim­ming pools, fel­low swim­mers and even odors. It seems Shap­ton is a synes­thete (some­one who ex­pe­ri­ences one sen­sa­tion in terms of an­other — a sound as a color, for ex­am­ple), and per­haps this is what en­ables her to de­scribe the sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ences of swim­ming so richly. Ev­ery sense is height­ened: She de­scribes rub­bing her palms on the start­ing blocks to make her hands more sen­si­tive as they pulled through the water and re­calls how she could al­ways pick out her coach’s voice in a com­pe­ti­tion crowd. Her words are vivid, col­or­ful and tan­gi­ble. I bet that Shap­ton could ex­plain swim­ming even to some­one who has never dipped a toe in water.

Although Shap­ton swam com­pet­i­tively for many years, at­tend­ing the Cana­dian Olympic tri­als in 1988, her mem­oir charts much more than the heady highs of com­pe­ti­tion. In fact, it is the lonely, strange and soli­tary life of a swim­mer that is so ac­cu­rately il­lus­trated in th­ese pages. If you’ve ever watched a swim­mer warm­ing up be­fore a race, seen a TV­cam­era zoom in on the blank face on the start­ing blocks or sim­ply ob­served a reg­u­lar swim­mer at your pool, per­haps you’ve won­dered at the thoughts be­hind the mir­rored gog­gles. “Swim­ming Stud­ies” lets you in, giv­ing you a mul­ti­fac­eted il­lus­tra­tion of a world that is fas­ci­nat­ing and im­pres­sive, sad and poignant.

The stud­ies in this mem­oir track Shap­ton’s life, from her ear­li­est years in the train­ing pool to the present day. It is not all chlo­rine and long-course pools. She de- scribes swim­ming in pools, ponds and oceans around the world: from Lon­don’s ladies’ ponds on Hamp­stead Heath to Stock­holm’s Salt­sjobadens Frilufts­bad. We get the im­pres­sion that her en­tire life has been a study of what it means to swim: Pool lines and lane mark­ers are the threads that have run through her life, and time has been mea­sured dif­fer­ently, in the split sec­onds sep­a­rat­ing first and sec­ond place or in the blocks of years lead­ing up to ma­jor cham­pi­onships. Even bod­ies are viewed from a teenage ath­lete’s per­spec­tive: “Since noth­ing is con­cealed in a swim­suit, no size or shape, the thrilling re­ver­sal is to see bod­ies clothed: ob­scured lines of mus­cle and limb, how some­one tucks or un­tucks, cuffs an­kles or pock­ets hands.” Shap­ton draws elo­quently on her ex­pe­ri­ences. We are led through her ear­li­est years as a young swim­mer, barely into her teens, through her life as a com­peti­tor putting in hours and hours of prac­tice to reach the top. She lets us into the re­al­ity of not mak­ing the Olympics with the sear­ing hon­esty of a teenage girl. Her mind is cu­ri­ous and in­tel­li­gent, the writ­ing ele­gant and touch­ing.

There is a pe­cu­liar sad­ness and re­gret in be­ing al­most good enough at some­thing to which you have de­voted your be­ing. Bet­ter than most, but not the best. Shap­ton de­scribes this long­ing for that fi­nal 1 per­cent in great de­tail through thoughts, ob­ser­va­tions and in­ner mono­logue. Her mem­o­ries are fas­ci­nat­ing to us but, we sense, some­what painful to her. There is a haunt­ing sense of loss, of car­ry­ing the ghost of a former life into the fu­ture: “As I ap­proach forty, my swim­mer self erodes with the on­set of the grav­ity-bound realms of mar­riage and fam­ily. Swim­ming is my dis­em­bod­ied youth, yet I am rapidly be­com­ing the em­bod­ied present.”

Ul­ti­mately, “Swim­ming Stud­ies” is about more than swim­ming. It’s about how the dis­ci­pline of com­pet­i­tive sport teaches rou­tine, per­se­ver­ance and good habits. It’s about how the dili­gence of ath­letic prac­tice can trans­late into art, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and even love. Shap­ton de­scribes lov­ing swim­ming “the way you love some­body,” and it’s true; in th­ese pages, swim­ming de­vel­ops a char­ac­ter, with a voice and a per­son­al­ity sup­ply­ing all the com­plex­i­ties that go into a close, life­long re­la­tion­ship.


Leanne Shap­ton, who cre­ated this il­lus­tra­tion, be­gan swim­ming in her ear­li­est years. She tried to make the Olympics and is still haunted by her fail­ure.

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