Non-fiction book about the history and psychology of swimming
I came across this book on Twitter a few months ago when the author ran a contest for World Swim Day. I didn’t win, but I was intrigued by the book. I don’t think I have ever been tempted by any book remotely resembling sports biography, but this book hooked me. I was a keen swimmer as a kid and every year trained for months in the lead-up to the inter-school swimming carnival in my local area. I’m a strong swimmer, if not a particularly fast swimmer, and after years of not winning any ribbons in high school I was thrilled to get 2nd place in a race in my last ever swimming carnival. Over the years since then, I’ve come back to the pool again and again and I can still easily swim 1km. A couple of years ago my partner bought me a set of swimming headphones and I even have an aquatic-themed playlist I listen to when I swim. There’s something that draws me to the water, and I was interested to see what drew other people as well. I saw that it was available as an audiobook, so I bought a copy to listen to.
“Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui and narrated by Angie Kane is a non-fiction book that blends memoir, journalism and anthropology to explore what it is that draws us to the water. Tsui provides a brief overview of swimming throughout human history using a few modern day examples, and then interviews extreme swimmers including a man who survived freezing Icelandic waters, a woman who smashed international distance swimming records while training to regain mobility and a man who started a swimming school for beginners in a war zone. Alongside this, Tsui shares her own experience as a swimmer and how the joy of swimming connects her with her family.
Tsui is a spirited writer who curates remarkable stories of swimmers who defy the limits. I particularly enjoyed the story of Guðlaugur and the speculation about prisoners who escaped Alcatraz by swimming. I was also fascinated by the history of different strokes and the different types of swimming that emerged through Samurai culture in Japan. The exclusivity of swimming and swimming clubs in relation to gender, race and class in the United Kingdom was also very interesting. There was recently a controversy here in Australia very recently about a women’s swimming pool in Sydney that stated in its policy that only transwomen who have undergone gender reassignment surgery would be able to use the pool. The policy didn’t go into detail about how exactly staff would be checking this, but understandably there was considerable community concern and the Association responsible for managing the Ladies’ Baths has updated their website in response.
In addition to some of the social issues surrounding swimming, Tsui spends quite a bit of the latter part of the book on research about the impact that swimming has on our bodies, and the physical, emotional and social benefits of swimming which really resonated with me. I also found Tsui’s reflections on her own family’s experiences with swimming really touching, especially how the skill and affinity for swimming is being passed on to her own children. Kane was a clear narrator who was easy to listen to.
While this book certainly explores swimming around the world, it definitely has an American focus and a particular interest in exceptionalism. I was probably a little less engaged with the story of a swim school for beginners in Baghdad set up by an American soldier and stories about record-breaking swims than I was some of the others. I was really fascinated by some of Tsui’s writing about human swimming ability and physiology that makes us suitable for swimming, and although it is certainly an extremely contentious theory, I was surprised she didn’t mention the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis just for interest’s sake.
A thought-provoking book that has reignited my enthusiasm for swimming and inspired me to look into distance swimming here in Australia.