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 TV camera 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 describes 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.
By Leanne Shapton
Blue Rider. 320 pp. $30