Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Bonnie Tsui opens Why We Swim, with a personal anecdote about getting swept over by a wave when she was five years old. “I scrambled to the surface, my hair wrapped around my face like kelp.” Her parents, though not neglectful, had missed the seconds it takes for a youngster to get lifted and rolled, “like a squirrel in a spinner,” was the expression my family used to say. It’s a rite of passage for any child who braves an ocean: sand in your pants, a scraped knee, and a mouthful of salt water.
Tsui continues, “When I realized that no one had noticed I was in trouble I pretended that I never was. And I turned right back into the sea.” Why do we return to the sea, the lake, the pool if we happen to be one of those humans who love the water? Since we are made of up to 60% water, perhaps it’s to feel more at home.
Tsui sets out explaining her own love for the water and a history of humans’ relationship with it. She regales us with research; a history of swimming aids (the Romans had cork life jackets in 400 BC – who knew?) tales of humans who free dive for ten minutes at at a time, an Icelandic fisherman who survived six hours in water twenty-six degrees Fahrenheit, and interviews with people who have completed the Oceans Seven (the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Molokai Channel, Lake Tahoe, the Cook Strait, and Tsugaru Strait and the North Channel).
Tsui writes about the camaraderie of swimmers, ranging from unique swim lessons in Baghdad during the US-led invasion of Iraq to the Dolphin Club in San Francisco (the author lives in the Bay Area). This camaraderie is evident for me when I swim with a couple of gal pals in Abiquiu Lake. We typically begin in mid-May when the water is in the mid-fifties. Wetsuits were in order despite the healthy benefits of a cold dip that are detailed in the book.
Meg MacDonald, one of my swimming buddies, is owner of a boutique travel company, Travel Muse which is now unsurprisingly, on hiatus. She sometimes swims with a friend at the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, adjacent to Tsui’s Dolphin Club. Typically members swim in water that ranges from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The cove water is cold, dark, choppy,” Meg relates. “And filled with swimmers! It is so much fun being with so many others who share this joy. Almost no one wears a wetsuit – either they are purists or they do not want a Great White Shark to mistake them for a seal. So I don’t wear one either. The cold water gives an added ‘high’ and the views to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular!”
I grew up in Central Florida when it was still “old Florida” (pre-Disney), lakes were everywhere and accessible. Sinkholes with brackish, golden colored water dotted pastures. The Gulf of Mexico beckoned with silky white beaches. I swam in them all with swim teams thrown in, but fell out of the habit as an adult. Decades passed and when I was sixty-three for some reason I decided to train for a three mile open water swim between the Caribbean Islands of Nevis and St. Kitts.
Habituals at the Genovese Chavez Community Center pool might have observed a crazy person clocking two hour swims without stopping. I didn’t know how to prepare, just that I had to have the stamina for at least a couple of hours. Forget whether I knew how to “spot” in order to swim toward the goal, or the water conditions where the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean collide…I just needed to do it. The day came and several hundred other swimmers from around the world gathered on the beach to take the plunge.
The first hazard was navigating a harbor of anchored boats. Since my strategy was to bring up the rear, the manic froth, kicking and jockeying for position was short-lived. The crowd disappeared in front of me and I found myself grinning. “I’m really doing this!”
Tsui talks about flow and zone as immersive states that occur while swimming. Zone is defined as time slowed down and flow is the loss of awareness of time. During that first open water outing, flow overtook me. I simply had a grand time churning through the waves, watching an eagle ray glide beneath me until suddenly, an hour and forty some minutes later, I was using my legs on land. Giddy. Where did the time go? It didn’t take long to start thinking about the next race.
It was in the Chavez locker room when I met Ellen Kemper after overhearing her talk about a swim vacation she was about to take in Fiji. She quickly invited me to take part in the weekly summer open water swims. Ellen is the founder of Mertail Fitness LLC which specializes in tailor made swim lessons especially for adults.
“My goal is effortless swimming for everyone because I realized that many who never learned to swim fear the water and few adults swim properly streamlined thereby stressing their necks and shoulders.”
For her own swimming she relates, “Open water is my true swimming challenge. We swim towards that faraway spot with confidence of a sure return even if the winds shift creating a swim through a squall or choppy water. Swimming is the one sport that you can do longer and harder as you grow older.”
Camaraderie aside, Tsui writes that swimming requires submersion and isolation. In some ways that is how pandemic life feels on a daily basis out of the water. The fluid which surrounds us in a swim, whether in a pool or open water both supports us with great strength and offers little resistance as we glide through its silky liquid arms. Why We Swim doesn’t answer any questions about why some of us find our safe space in the water and others don’t. But she gives us an entertaining read for those who love to float, glide and commune with water.
For me, after a swim, the emergence back to the earth with gravity both atmospherically and of the chaotic unfolding of events, I feel lighter, somehow cleansed, renewed and ready to take up the tasks of life, grateful for a brief encounter with a weightless world, a place of bubbling silence.