In the two-hundred-metre individual medley this year, in London, Michael Phelps beat his rival and fellow-American Ryan Lochte to win his sixteenth gold medal. The race was wonderful to watch, not only for the rivalry but for the camera work and for the swimmers’ extraordinary physiques. We’re practically in the pool with them as their monstrous shoulders fling arms over the surface and their smooth torsos and legs ripple through an underwater flutter kick. Watching Lochte and Phelps travel impossible distances with each stroke, I thought of the poet Maxine Kumin’s description of a swimmer racing. “Thrift is his wonderful secret; he has schooled out all extravagance.”
Like running, swimming is a sport but not a game. Nor does it involve much strategy. It comes down to technique, speed, strength, will. Uncommon physical characteristics help. Phelps, who has now won more Olympic medals (twenty-two) than any athlete in history, has a wingspan that is four inches longer than his height (six-foot-four), and his ankles are double-jointed. Lynne Cox, a marathon swimmer who has crossed the Bering Strait in only a Speedo, has an unusually even and thick layer of fat, like a seal—some thirty-five per cent of her body weight. There is also something mysterious that great swimmers have, “a ‘feel’ for the water,” as Leanne Shapton writes in her new book, “Swimming Studies.” What this means is both self-evident and indefinable. It just is.
Shapton, best known as an illustrator, swam competitively in her youth in Ontario, Canada, racing her way as far as the Olympic trials. Her book is a meditation on the gruelling years of training, the ways swimming is refracted through her memory now, and the places where she has swum as an adult. Its brief chapters are mini-essays with titles like “Doughnuts,” “Studebakers,” “Size,” “Goggles,” and “Piña Colada.” She’s not interested in the champion’s trajectory. She concentrates on the quiet rituals, the moments of ambivalence.
I was a competitive swimmer, and I have never read anything that captured the sport so well. Shapton knows just the details to include: the double steel doors that the coach opens during practice, and the clouds of chlorinated steam that puff out into the winter night; the way you rub your hands across a starting block’s rough surface to make them “raw and more sensitive in the water”; her coach’s soggy gray socks and deck sandals (you are always looking up at your coach); and racers’ dives: “a tiny midair push-up, followed by a small flex at their hips.” She describes and re-describes her inevitable obsession with time, with “the ability to make still lifes out of tenths of seconds.”
Diana Nyad, another marathon swimmer, says swimming is “the loneliest sport in the world.” In a pool, you’re staring at a line on the bottom; in open water, you’re mostly staring into a murky, hallucinatory vastness. In either place, you’re alone with your thoughts, and your pain, submerged for long periods. I had a coach, Kip, who said that good swimmers must be smart. What he meant was that they must be comfortable in their heads; they must be able to withstand, even enjoy, long stretches of conversation with themselves.
Shapton’s book captures the mental state that is unique to the monotony of laps in a pool. Thoughts have an unmoored, weightless quality. They drift, circle, repeat, and weave together according to a rhythm maintained by counted breaths (I alternate sides, breathing every three strokes) and punctuated by flip turns like cymbal flourishes. You never know quite where Shapton is going with an anecdote. It’s like one of the pleasures of swimming—the unexpected places that the mind will wander.
The second half of her book is full of scenes from her worldly, lush adulthood: visiting the Peter Zumthor-designed pools of the Hotel Therme Vals, in Switzerland; chatting with Lucian Freud about her drawings and the pool in the London hotel where she was staying. Remarkably, the contrast between these luxurious adventures and her ascetic, middle-class adolescence with the Etobicoke Swim Club is not particularly stark. Both eras are recounted with equal delicacy and acuity. What could get tiresome—her jet-setting, design-blog-ready depictions of watery encounters—is instead a pleasure because we know her from the pool--from her vivid, gentle account of those rubber-cap days. Her sparse, satisfying prose is your guide, and you’re glad to get to swim beside her.
“I believed, for a while, in the aphrodisiacal qualities of my swimming,” Shapton writes. Sex and swimming go way back. The first swimmer in Western literature was Leander. He swam a mile across the Hellespont each night to see his lover, Hero. She guided him into port with a torch. Then, one night, storm winds blew out the torch and Leander drowned. Hero, devastated, flung herself into the sea. Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, in 1810, and found it tough going, “so much so, that I doubt whether Leander’s conjugal powers must not have been exhausted in his passage to Paradise.” (Shapton’s belief did not survive her experience, either. After watching one of her swim meets, her husband was “like a man who has just sat through an interesting lecture and is now peckish.”)
Nothing daunted, D. H. Lawrence considered, in “Women in Love,” a swimming man, watched by women, to embody a kind of sexual ideal. “The whole otherworld, wet and remote, he had to himself…. The sisters stood watching the swimmer move further into the grey, moist, full space of the water, pulsing with his own small, invading motion…. He loved his own vigorous, thrusting motion, and the violent impulse of the very cold water against his limbs, buoying him up.” The women are moved. One says, “It is one of the impossibilities of life, for me to take my clothes off now and jump in.” The other observes, “It’s so wet,” plainly meaning, in context, the lake.
New England (and English) witch trials, with their subtext of sexual judgment, sometimes included a swimming test. A bound suspect thrown in the water would, under one theory, be buoyed up, if innocent, by the hand of God. Under another theory, those who floated were being rejected by the water, which represented baptism, and were therefore witches, while those who sank (and sometimes drowned) were innocent. Benjamin Franklin wrote a newspaper story about a witch trial in New Jersey in which two women flunked the swimming test, floating guiltily. But then, according to Franklin, the community realized that it might have been the shifts they were allowed to wear buoying them up, and it was decided to wait for warmer weather, when the women could be re-tested nude. (There is no evidence that this trial actually happened. Franklin was probably just having a laugh at lascivious witch hunters.)
Long before bikinis, Annette Kellerman, an Australian silent-film star and professional swimmer—she was the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel, in 1905—became an international sex symbol by fighting for the right to wear a head-to-toe one-piece bathing suit. She was arrested for indecency, in 1907, on Revere Beach, Massachusetts, for wearing a suit that ended at her thighs. In 1916, she became the first major actress to appear fully nude in a film. Her book, “How to Swim,” published in 1918, got a good review in the Times.
John Cheever gave the world its dripping antihero, Neddy Merrill, in his story “The Swimmer,” which appeared in this magazine in 1964. Merrill, a hard-drinking suburbanite, decides to leave a party and go home the hard way, swimming through a long chain of Westchester County pools. “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project.” Merrill’s journey turns dark, his anxiety thickens, and his body grows weary and sore. Time warps. He loses his mistress, his wife and children, his social confidence, and, when he finally arrives home, his house is dark and abandoned. Swimming, submersion, offer no salvation from age and ruin in Cheever country.
What we can know through swimming is not ecstatic release but what Leanne Shapton calls “the life of the body.” She describes swimming in London, in the freezing Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond: “I circle again and my body feels warm, but it is the warmth of a slap: blood rushing the flesh.” Swimming becomes, with the years, a kind of athlete’s madeleine. “When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar.”
Read more from our Swimsuit Issue.
Illustration by Leanne Shapton.
My passion for Lord Byron's work began in my teens when I studied the Romantics at English A-level. The erotic adventures of Don Juan were far more appealing to my adolescent self than William Wordsworth's walks through fields of golden daffodils. But I only found out recently that Byron's greatest passion was swimming. Born with a club foot, Byron found a freedom in the water that he could not experience on land. And forget poetic or political success: Byron often claimed that his biggest ever achievement was one particular swim - across the Hellespont on 3 May, 1810.
This stretch of water, from the Black Sea to the Aegean, is the most famous in ancient history, separating Europe from Asia. In Greek mythology, Leander used to swim across it every night to visit his lover Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way. Byron swam across it to prove it was possible. I have a love for swimming too, so when I heard that a commemorative swim was to be held exactly 200 years after Byron had done it, I knew I had to be there.
So it was that on bank holiday Monday I found myself lined up with 139 other intrepid swimmers on the European side of the Dardanelles, ready to attempt the crossing. They were mostly British, but there were some other Europeans, as well as Australians and Americans. Some were experienced channel swimmers; others just recreational athletes - but all were united by a love of the water. Excitingly, one of Byron's descendants was there too.
The organisers were anxious. Due to a very cold winter in southern Turkey, the water temperature was just 13C - a good five degrees lower than it should be at this time of the year. The Turkish authorities had kindly closed off the shipping lane for us - the busiest in the world - but they had also changed the course at the last minute, so it was now well over 5km rather than four.
At 3pm the hooter sounded and we all plunged into the icy water. It was choppy and, in the first few minutes, frantic, as everyone jostled for position. The waves pounded our faces and it was tough working out how to breathe. I hoped the conditions would calm down at some point.
We had been given landmarks to look out for on the other side of the water, to guide our path. Every few strokes, when I wasn't taking in a mouthful of seawater, I looked up and checked I was going in the right direction. The swimmers began to disperse along the course as the stronger and more experienced led the way up front.
I admit over the first 500 metres I did have a wobble. It was so hard. But then I got into a rhythm. I found other swimmers going at roughly my pace and I almost began to enjoy it. I had no real idea how fast I was swimming, or how far I had gone. I couldn't see any of the buoys that were supposed to mark our path, so I just concentrated on the red and white transmitter mast on the Asian side of the Dardanelles, which we had been told to aim for. I had no time to think about how deep the water was, or how far I now was from the shore. I didn't care about the swarms of jellyfish around me. All my concentration was on my stroke as I plunged my arms through the waves with as much power as I could muster, fighting the strong current that always seemed to be against me.
My hands were now getting cold, and at times I clenched them to get the blood flowing. The first time I looked at my watch I was surprised that I'd been going for 55 minutes. There still seemed such a long way to go! The people at the front had been hoping to do it in around 50 minutes, so that made me anxious. I found out afterwards the winner, British swimmer Colin Hill, managed the crossing in one hour 27 minutes, such was the severity of the conditions. He had been hoping to break the record, which was just 48 minutes.
I kept going, but each time I looked up I felt more and more alone. The other swimmers were now widely dispersed and there was no one near me. Just a huge stretch of water, and land which still looked so far away. I then realised I was feeling cold - very cold. Too cold. I'd been in the water for an hour and a half by now. I was starting to feel confused, which I knew was an early sign of hypothermia. Then, like an apparition, a small Turkish fishing boat that was part of our escort appeared at my side. It felt like my saviour.
I admitted defeat and made the signal were had been told to give if we needed help. My hands and feet were so numb, I couldn't even climb up the steps of the boat. A kindly fisherman with a rough, weatherbeaten face hauled me out. I was handed some thick blankets to stop my shivering and we slowly made our way to shore, shepherding the other swimmers in the hot afternoon sun. I shouted encouragement from the safety of the boat to the brave souls still in the water, happy that at least I could help them finish the swim, even though I had not been able to do so myself.
I had failed in my attempt to emulate Byron's iconic swim, which he did in one hour 10 minutes - doing breaststroke. But I was still proud of what I had achieved. I'd managed around 4km in challenging conditions on my first ever sea swim, and the only thing that had defeated me was the elements, not my own fitness. And after all, Byron failed on his first attempt too. Maybe I'll return one day and try again.
• The event was organised by Swimtrek; swimtrek.com; +44 (0) 1273 739 713