The Joy of Swimming (Weekend Reads)

"How do you just stare at the bottom of the pool for hours on end?"

It was the most common question I got in twelve years of competitive swimming. And only asked by people who could never really understand whatever answer I gave. But the truth is that it was hard to give an answer. Swimming, for me, wasn't about staring at the bottom of the pool. Heck, you really only noticed the bottom of the pool when it marked that you were close to the wall. Swimming was about so much more.

The majority of the time you compete as an individual but you train as a team. Everyone in the pool is pushing each other and not so secretly competing even on practice days. My swimming friends were my closest friends because I saw them the most, I suffered with them, I laughed with them, I travelled with them, we saw each other in next to nothing for hours on end. They were my people.

Swimming is also sport for the internally driven. No matter the cheering or the direction from the coach, no one is going to propel you down the pool but yourself. No one is going to kick harder or reach further but yourself. And yes, when you are starting at the bottom of the pool for hours on end the only person you have to talk to is yourself. It comes down to discipline and drive.

In Lisa Congdon's new book, The Joy of Swimming, she makes a connection between art and swimming that makes total sense to me.

"There has always been a fixed and steady connection for me between art making and swimming. Both of these passions require similar things of me: enormous discipline and a unique form of endurance... Like art making, swimming is at the same time rigorous exercise and also a form of play."

It explains so much to me, of me.

The Joy of Swimming is a delightfully creative survey of the sport of swimming. It is full of historical facts, fascinating tidbits about the sport, equipment, and pools. But mostly it is the story of swimmers. Lisa's drawing and letterwork, combined with the brief profiles all try to answer the question of why anyone stares at the bottom of a pool (or never sees the bottom of open water) for hours on end. The profiles range from kids in the beginning of their careers in the pool to seniors who've been in the pool hundreds of times more than the average person.  It includes famous swimmers of the past and present and water babies of today.

My daughter read this book. The Monster is nine and spends a good chunk of her free time in the pool as a competitive synchro swimmer. If she has a break from swimming for more than a few days she gets antsy and asks if we can go swimming. She needs the water to feel sane. I totally get that. The book gave her a way to be connected to the pool even at bedtime.

I don't know that this book will get anyone new in the water. It might - the profiles, while brief, are inspiring. It is making me want to get back in the water, that's for sure! The book will definitely enchant anyone who has ever spent time in the pool for more than what we always called public swimming, the fun stuff. I have a list of family and friends to buy the book for.

As a quilter and writer now it feels like I stare at the bottom of the pool for hours on end again. It might be the blank page of my notebook, at sentences on a screen, or piles of fabric in various forms. The work can be repetitive and lonely at times. Chain piecing like going back and forth and back and forth down a pool. The drudgery doesn't stop me - even when I'm trimming hundreds of half square triangles - because I am internally driven. I know the hard work will pay off. 

Everyone comes to the sport for different reasons, and we stay for different ones too. After twelve years of it I quit suddenly when it just wasn't fun anymore. I've never looked back and now watch the kids I see swimming while I'm at the pool with my own children with nostalgia. Lisa and I spoke about swimming during our time together in January. I was in awe of her commitment to the sport as an adult. She started her true commitment at the same age where I was ending mine. But I know that swimming provided a foundation for my entire life. I would not be the person I am today without swimming, not at all. And now I see that that includes my creative journey as well.

Lisa Congdon will be on a book tour for the book. If you are anywhere near Portland, Seattle, NYC, San Francisco, Minneapolis, or Brooklyn I recommend seeking out the event. And if you or anyone you know is a swimmer, then definitely grab this. If you aren't a swimmer or don't even like the water, The Joy of Swimming is worth the read. It does indeed provide some answers as to why we can spend all the time staring at the bottom of pools. Not to mention, Lisa's creativity shines.

Disclosure: I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher, Chronicle Press. That was the second time I read it because Lisa loaned me an advance copy to read back in January and I stayed up too late to read with the lights of LA for company.