Basking in the rosy glow of the recent Olympics, I spent long evenings watching the coverage jump from the pool to other venues and back again to the pool; and, when I finally went to bed, I tucked myself into Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. There the glow rippled and washed into the aquamarine that I fell in love with as a girl, opening my eyes underwater as the lights came on for night swimmers. However, this memoir very quickly took me beyond familiar feelings and recollections.
As a teen, Shapton was a serious swimmer, qualifying for the Canadian Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992. I only shivered at my small town pool, and often preferred the towel-on-warm-concrete doze afterward to the actual swimming. The sidestroke was my favorite. Shapton raced. She was once ranked eighth in her country. Swimming shaped the Shapton family's daily life for years as she and her brother both competed. Long winter drives to 5 a.m. practices were a small part of the fierce discipline that Leanne embraced, along with pain and isolation. She admits, "I liked how hard swimming at that level was—that I could do something difficult and unusual." As she looks back, Shapton provides glimpses of an elite competitive world, her journey there, and her life beyond swimming. Her story is a little like diving under the water, wavery and blue and beautiful. But it's not all clear and simple. It can make your eyes sting.
A beautiful surprise is Shapton's artistic design for this book. She is now a skilled author and artist, and her interesting and compelling visuals flesh out the loose structure and compelling details of her writing. From the wonderful aqua and marine blue cover depiction of a swim cap, to the ink wash illustrations of moving bodies in the water and a fashion show of swim suits, her artwork adds layers of meaning and a greater physicality to her memories.
Yet it's not all about the pretty water. Shapton weaves the swimming metaphor through the narrative, but she is exploring more than just athletic competition. She draws the connection between artistic discipline and physical discipline. She also notices the control she was searching for in swimming, and then links that to her marriage, "It's not something to win, not a course of known length with smooth, clear lanes." She lets the reader in as she works to understand her own experience, which always engages. I appreciate that effort to open one's eyes under water.
Both learning and remembering as I read, I was moved by Shapton's writing. That little girl who was blue-lipped on the pool deck was me. She stayed in the water too long, was chilled and pruney, but she had kept up with her older sister. That teenager swimming lap after lap in Toronto was Leanne, at first keeping up with her brother, then surpassing him, then trying to figure out how to be friends with her competitors, then coming to grips with leaving the competition. Reflecting on her years of swim meets, Shapton looks at herself in Swimming Studies, and is able to say with great self-acceptance, "I suspect, these days, I am more suited to bathing," a graceful term for swimming without a focus on propulsion and speed. These days I'm more suited to a long hot bath, but I love to read a good book at the same time, and this was a good one. If you've ever been to a pool, or watched Missy Franklin win gold, I can't resist saying you'll want to dive right in.
Read an excerpt from this book.
An illustrator as well as author, Leanne Shapton has been the art director for the New York Times and a columnist for Elle, has written several books including The Native Trees of Canada and Swimming Studies, and is a cofounder of J&L Books, a nonprofit publisher of art and photography books. There is much to see on her website.
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