Swim. The single, solitary, one-syllable word that makes up the title of this wonderful book makes the author’s intention — and her passion — crystal clear. Swim, it reminds us.
But is the title of Lynn Sherr’s book a command, a suggestion, an exhortation? That one word on the cover leaves us in no doubt as to the focus we’ll find on the pages within. This slim volume is not about wateror exercise. It is neither history lesson nor social commentary (although, in fact, it contains some of each and much more besides). It is a love-letter to swimming, one woman’s homage to the pastime that continues to capture the hearts of young and old.
Just as I do before that first delicious moment of slipping underwater for a swim, I dipped into Sherr’s book with a shiver of anticipation. It opens with a vivid account of her attempt to swim the Hellespont, known today as theDardanelles, the channel dividing Asia and Europe, famed as the straits that tried (and failed) to keep apart the lovers Hero and Leander.
Immediately, the book reeled me in. I was there with Sherr, submerged in seawater, chilled but fired-up, tranquil but energized. I, too, am a sea swimmer. I have swum across the English Channel twice. Sherr’s sensory recollection of what it is like to swim long distances in the sea resonated with me on a deep, almost metabolic level. I felt my skin prickling and my lungs expanding as I read. She describes the fears, the thrills and the peculiar freedom of swimming in a language that any swimmer will recognize. Swimming, says Sherr, is “the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get . . . a time of quiet contemplation. . . . The silence is stunning.” If you’ve ever swum, you’ll know what she means.
This book will enchant anyone who’s drawn to water, whether you swim once a week at the local pool or dedicate your life to briny challenges. Although it opens with a cliff-hanger account of Sherr’s Hellespont adventure, and then dives into the mythology and poetic history behind that swim, the book’s appeal lies in more than its vibrant descriptions of open-water swimming. From the Hellespont, Sherr takes us on a journey through the history of swimming from ancient times to modern-day sport, via mythology and art. The book is beautifully illustrated with maps, texts and rare images of swimming — from Egyptian hieroglyphs through Hollywood to the Olympic Games.
There are historical tales, of Benjamin Franklin inventing an early type of hand-paddle, of the sport’s first superstars, Matthew Webb, the first to swim the English Channel, and the speedy and graceful Esther Williams. Sherr explores the science that lies behind our love of water, describing the health and vigor our bodies derive from swimming and asserting that this “upgrades swimming from a pleasant pastime to a medical must.” The history and development of various swimming strokes are explored, illustrated by fascinating, funny images of technological contraptions of yesteryear. And the modern sport is examined, with interviews and insights from Olympians and coaches. Sherr invites us to explore it with her: the spaces in which we swim, the clothing we wear, the extremes to which we take the sport.
She delivers it all in beautiful prose: She is an award-winning writer and broadcast journalist, a well-known face on ABC News for 30 years. This is Sherr in her element, eagerly sharing her life’s passion through an assiduous look at swimming and what it means. Perhaps the tiny swimmer breast-stroking over and over again at the foot of each page is Sherr herself. The little lady inches her way along, matching her swim stroke to our page turning until, there on page 187, she stretches out both arms as if reaching to touch the wall at the end of her final lap.
Swimmers, Sherr suggests, are a strange breed. Most at home in an alien environment, they recharge their batteries by spending time submerged in silence. Something unspoken unites the competitive pool-swimmer, the endurance open-water specialist and those who swim for leisure. It is this something (and everything) that she searches for in “Swim.” It begins, Sherr says, with “the lure, the hold, the timeless enchantment of being in the water.”
Swimming is one of our oldest pastimes, one of our most crucial life-skills and most popular sports. Many books exist about swimming technique, training, events and challenges. But “Swim” is the only book I’ve ever read that gathers together everything we love about swimming in one volume.
It’s all here. And its enticing blend of personality and passion will draw you in, just like an irresistible glimpse of a lake on a hot summer’s day.
You’re a swimmer. You know what I mean.
Why We Love the Water
By Lynn Sherr
PublicAffairs. 212 pp. $25.99