A Trove of New Books Celebrate the Hidden Depths of Swimming
Circa 1950s: Woman Sun Bathing On Green Mat By Edge Side Of Pool Water Recline Holding Beach Ball By Her Side Relax. © H. Armstrong Roberts / Getty Images
Whether it’s a municipal pool, a secluded backyard oasis or that moment when you first crest the hill and see the lake, there’s just something about water. Because with water, there’s the promise of swimming.
Whether it’s front crawl or breaststroke or luxuriating skyward with a backstroke you stretch out and the desk slouch unfurls. The buoyancy of the liquid medium offers total relaxation. In the streamlined gliding moment after every stroke toward the horizon edge there is a feeling of forever — until the next stroke. And the next. The strokes multiply. The rhythm of the horizontal pace timed with breathing patterns becomes meditative.
With the addition of goggles, the underwater view changes — and with it, perspective. In a swimming pool (or as the outdoor ones are called in Europe, lido) looking up at the sky through the veil of the surface, the clear blue turns into silvered bubbles, like mercury glass. In wild swimming, there’s the shock of the cold water that leaves you alone with your thoughts and urges you to push through them, to the inky dark depths beyond.
“When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens,” Roger Deakin wrote in Waterlog, still a pillar of the swim-noir genre. “Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” There’s a simplicity and peacefulness to that survival, that buoyancy that cuts across class and age and has no judgment. Because the social conventions around the water have varied through history, but water itself remains indifferent.
Many have before and after Deakin have written eloquently about swimming but the more recent literature of swimming zeroes in on the female experience, with the activity as a means of recapturing one’s true identity. In Gillian Best’s novel The Last Wave (House of Anansi) for example, a young wife and mother in the 1940s escapes domestic drudgery and even stops attending religious services (“this is the only church I need”) because of her obsessive devotion to swimming. “Nothing could keep her from the sea because it was her answer to everything … The sea, for my mother, would make it all better.” Breaking the surface of the water also offers the welcome relief of the solitude and isolation in Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (House of Anansi) — another reluctant matriarch inexorably drawn to the sea, this time in Dorset, and passages that deal with water and evoke this quality of it.
In 1918, Australian swimmer and silent film star Annette Kellerman published the How to Swim manual, touting it as the best sport for women because it supposedly expresses innate femininity, elegance and grace. Kellerman was wrong: swimming is the best sport in the world for women because it’s magic. It’s meditation. And that has nothing to do with body confidence. Women in water is the one place there can be no so-called second shift, no multi-tasting — the focus is on feeling yourself in your body. It’s entirely free of duty.
At least one thing Kellerman got right: “Swimming cultivates Imagination.” Joints and muscles are submerged in water but so is the brain, and the activity has mental health benefits. The flashes of dappled light bring with them a calm that can quell anxiety. Last summer an independent study commissioned by Swim England touted the health and well-being benefits of water, not only for those with long-term health conditions; it also found evidence of helping the elderly stay physically and mentally fit. For her compendium The Mermaid Handbook, Carolyn Turgeon revisited several of the former teenage ‘mermaids’ who worked at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs 1950s theme park. “All these aging women talked about that weightlessness in the water, of going into the water and feeling like they were 17 again,” Turgeon told me of her interviews with the women, now all in their sixties and beyond. “It’s in a way you don’t feel on land. That sort of magic quality where you don’t have age is appealing.”
“Rosemary is 86 but in the water she is ageless,” Libby Page writes in heartwarming new novel The Lido (Simon & Schuster) about the intergenerational friendship between a lonely young journalist and a seasoned octogenarian swimmer. They bond over the transformational effects of swimming when their Brixton community lido is threatened with closure. At one time there were nearly seventy such lidos London. In the recent movie Finding Your Feet starring Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie about sisters and second chances, they swim in one of them. The famous Kenwood ladies’ pond on Hampstead Heath (also a favourite of North Londoners like Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) becomes emblematic of Imrie’s free-spirited sexagenarian character.
Winner Of Female Diving Contest Blandine Fagedet at the Swimming Pool Georges Vallerey In Paris, 1962. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)