Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton
Leanne Shapton trained for the 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympic swimming teams. Her life revolved around and was consumed by training and competitions, to an extent that most of us realistically will not be able to relate to. In Swimming Studies she talks about her childhood and adolescence, which were years of highly driven focus, and then explores how her life changed after the trials for Barcelona ‘92, when she suddenly found herself having to think outside the box. Or perhaps outside the pool would be a more accurate description.
I was immediately drawn to this book because I too am a swimmer. I feel the inexplicable, almost ridiculous pull of an ice-cold swimming pool at stupid o’clock in the morning. Considering that I am therefore not impartial, it is difficult to know whether this is likely to appeal to those who have no particular interest in swimming. This book is not, however, an instructional manual on the physiology or technique of how to achieve the perfect stroke, kick, dive, or breathing rhythm. I suspect that many will be able to appreciate, and possibly relate to, the dedication to a cause that in Shapton’s case is swimming, but which might be something else to someone else. When the long-term goal of someone’s life is no longer present, the psyche is affected, new journeys begin, and, along with her memories, this is what Leanne Shapton explores in Swimming Studies.
The enjoyment and exploration of art, baking, and travel, all prove to be significant for a woman seeking to understand life after competitive swimming. Even trying to come to terms with the demands of marriage to a man she has been with for several years, and being bold enough to put this vulnerability onto paper, make Shapton seem like the most human of us all. This is somewhat gratifying to those of us who might be guilty of having a tendency to put elite athletes on a pedestal.
After squeezing into suits two sizes too small during her competitive youth, Leanne Shapton shares photographs and descriptions of her burgeoning collection of vintage swimming costumes, as well as examples of her own paintings. Recalling memories of the physical pain of her training demands, she does not seem sure whether or not she even still likes swimming, but continues to be drawn to pools, seeking out quirky, unusual, interesting ones around the world. She has certainly given me a few ideas of ones I would like to visit.
One of the most surprising things I learned is that throughout her life, Shapton often seemed to feel alienated, and perhaps still does. Not from mainstream life, as one might expect, but within the swimming community. She makes many references to friends, but also to seemingly feeling alone in a crowd. Having always imagined the psychology of dedicated immersion in an intense activity with like-minded others rather differently, I was fascinated to read about this concept. Filled not only with swimming stories, but also those about family, friends, marriage, and her aforementioned hobbies, Leanne Shapton has written a book that is straightforward, easy-going, and pleasurable to read, yet which is complicated below the surface. A bit like a perfectly executed tumble-turn from the viewpoint of the observer, perhaps.