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Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
I fell in love with Swimming Studies on the first page. “Trying to define what swimming means to me is like looking at a shell sitting in a few feet of still water,” Shapton writes. “There it is, in sharp focus, but once I reach for it, breaking the surface, the ripples refract the shell. It becomes five shells, twenty-five shells, some smaller, some larger, and I blindly feel for what I saw perfectly before trying to grasp it.”
Swimming Studies explores the way we are shaped by the obsessions of our youth. Shapton grew up as a swimmer, training at the University of Toronto and competing at a high level. She participated in the 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympic Trials (breaststroke) and once ranked eighth nationally. In her poetic and beautifully crafted memoir, Shapton explores what it means to be “pretty good” at something rather than “great.” How do those countless hours in the pool, that intense discipline of an elite athlete, shape who she is as an adult?
In a lesser writer’s hands, this material might be self-indulgent. Swimming Studies is, after all, heavily focused on Shapton’s own experience. She tells stories of her workouts, her competitions, her bus rides, her post-retirement visits to racing sites. She includes photos of her collection of bathing suits with detailed notes on where she swam in each (I’m jealous – why didn’t I think to save a museum of my swimsuits?!). She considers how the focus and work ethic she learned as a swimmer has influenced who she is as an artist. She writes about the way in which her success in swimming shapes her relationship with her brother and her husband. This material could be dismissed as egotistical navel-gazing, but (BUT!) the writing saves it from any such charge. Shapton’s sharp mind and gift with words allow her to transcend the self in this self-reflection; Swimming Studies offers a profound contemplation on identity, aging, competitiveness, sacrifice, and discipline. Shapton writes with great insight about living two lives: a life of the body and a life of the heart.
Even though Shapton’s competitive swimming life is long behind her, she struggles to understand why and how that swimmer continues to be a part of her. “I still see myself as a young swimmer,” she writes, “as a tube in a tank, as a neutral, androgynous athlete. But 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.” Shapton now lives in New York where she works as an artist, and her memoir teases out unexpected connections between the artistic life and the athletic one. Athletes define themselves as special, she explains, and then do “a series of very unspecial things [….] over and over a million times over, so that one special thing might happen, maybe, much later.” This discipline, commitment, and focus are as familiar to the artistic life as the athletic one. Putting in great effort despite the fact that reward will be indefinitely deferred is also common to both ways of life. In the words of Shapton: “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.”
In 2007, I published a novel about swimming called The Bone Cage. Like Swimming Studies, The Bone Cage focuses on the athletes’ long years of training and dedication (rather than simply zooming in on those podium moments we see on television), and in it I reflect on how athletes might take the lessons of their sport into post-competition life. Both books focus on the identity crisis at the end of a sporting life, or, in the words of Shapton, on the way in which “An athlete dies twice.”
Recently, someone on twitter asked another reader: “Was Swimming Studies as good as The Bone Cage?” Lurking, I waited for the answer. The tweet that came back made me very happy: “Swimming Studies should be The Bone Cage’s BFF. They’re on my bookshelf together now.” I like to think of these two books hanging out together on very many shelves, both contributing to an ongoing conversation about the meaning and purpose of sport.
I started reading Swimming Studies on a Friday night when my kids went to bed and didn’t put it down until I finished, far after my usual bedtime. The next morning, blurry eyed, I picked up the book and realized I’d left it entirely dog-eared and covered in pen, my favourite passages underlined and starred, my own conversation with it filling in the margins. Swimming Studies and I had a party, and it was a bit of a house-wrecker. Anyone who has ever swum will find hours of blissful nostalgia between these pages. Clear a chunk of time. You won’t want to be anywhere else until you’re done.