Heather's Reviews > Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
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Sep 12, 12

bookshelves: library-books, nonfiction, art
Read from September 03 to 12, 2012, read count: 2

(Somewhat shortened version of my thoughts on this book; full blog post here.)

In the last of the thirty pieces (some all text, some all images, some a mix of both) that make up Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton writes this:

I think about loving swimming the way you love somebody. How a kiss happens, gravitational. About compromise, sacrifice, and breakup. [...]

I think about loving swimming the way you love a country. The backseat of my father's car, driving through Toronto's older neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights. Framed photographs of a twenty-six-year-old Queen Elizabeth above classroom blackboards, ill-fitting wool coats and fur coats, ice-skate exchanges. A community center pool parking lot at four fifty-five a.m., where sleet makes the sound of brushed steel against a car door. A frozen rope clangs against a flagpole. (The door to the far left is unlocked; inside, warm, the pool lights flicker on in bays.) Ever present is the smell of chlorine, and the drifting of snow in the dark. (319-320)


I love that passage, and I think it captures a lot of what I like about Shapton's style, about this whole book. Shapton was a competitive swimmer in her teens, good enough to swim at the Canadian Olympic trials, twice, and this book is about her life as a swimmer, past and present. It's about growing up in Canada and getting up in the cold and dark for early practices; it's about hard work and sore muscles and the pressure of being a serious athlete; it's about swimming's place in Shapton's life over the years, and now. I like the mix of description and introspection—the book is full of descriptions of the various places where Shapton swims/has swum—from a hotel/spa in Switzerland that offers silent night-time swims for hotel guests to a hotel pool in Canada that's glass-bottomed and overlooks the hotel entrance to a phosphorescent ocean to athletic center pools that look much alike. I like, too, how Shapton explores her ambivalence towards swimming, or maybe just towards swimming competitively, and all that it entails (which is probably similar to what being any kind of serious athlete entails): what is all the discipline and effort for? What does it take out of you and what does it give you? Shapton also compares her past focus on swimming to her career focus as an artist: she explores the idea of "practice," athletic and artistic, considering ideas of "rigor" and "brilliance," repetition and "specialness."

Whether Shapton is writing about the corrections a coach gives a swimmer or about baking a lemon cake or about visualizing a race beforehand (practicing her breathing while making breakfast in the kitchen in the very early morning), her prose is precise and lovely. And her insights are sharp: there's one passage when she talks about watching her now-husband swim in the ocean on their first vacation together, where she writes this: "Watching him in the waves, I realize he doesn't see life as rigor and deprivation. To him it's something to enjoy, where the focus is not on how to win, but how to flourish" (136). That's a far cry from the "total focus and total sacrifice" that swimming competitively demands (that phrase is from a memo to the team from one of Shapton's coaches, during her Olympic trial days) (202). Part of the pleasure of the book, I think, is in watching Shapton explore things like this: in figuring out what swimming means and has meant to her, she's figuring out how she is and has been in the world, and also noticing other ways to be.
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