Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (2020)

I loved this book enough that it propelled me back to the pool after 3+ years. It’s not that I don’t swim anymore, it’s that I only swim in open water, which means only from June – October (in a good year), but as I finished this book in the blustery cold weather with sideways snow, I decided to hit the pool–a safer exercise option than continuous running on slippery streets. I definitely don’t love pools, and I don’t love swimming without open sky, but it was okay, and I think I’ll go back for more laps this week.

In this book Tsui gives us the story of swimming: its history, its open water and frigid water crazies, its pool competition, its community building, and so much more, including the history of shallow lakes in the Sahara Desert that were once home to swimmers. I was first struck by a few lines on page 36: “We first swim to survive the water—we can’t view swimming as anything else until that happens. But once we can survive it, the water can be something more for us. We can live with it, thrive with it.” And later she goes on to talk about the way swimming allows us to escape, to be part of another world where we can shut out the noise of this world: “We feel light, suspended. Time slows down in the best way, and we feel that we have more of it” (102). This is how I feel in the summer in Lake Michigan–I notice the shadows of the clouds over the water, the shadows of my body on the sand below, my mind wanders, I count strokes, I feel the rhythm of the waves or the stillness of the surface. It’s otherworldly. Like I’m part human, part sea creature. And when I’m done with my swim, I can play in the water— handstands, somersaults, floating on my back. I do not play on land, but water somehow encourages it. It brings out a different part of me from what lives on land. And these are some of the reasons why I swim. Packed with history, research, captivating stories, and personal experience, this is a book for all the swimmers out there.

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