‘Swimming Studies’ by Leanne Shapton

A few years ago I read a life-changing book, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. ‘Life-changing’ might sound somewhat over-the-top but the book prompted me to examine what made me truly happy. And my conclusion was this – reading and swimming. I especially like reading by the pool. At some stage I will put together a review of The Happiness Project (so I can document the bits that I found helpful) but in the meantime, here’s a book about swimming – the remarkably lovely Swimming Studies.

Swimming Studies is a curious little book. It’s a memoir by Canadian writer and artist Leanne Shapton, focused on the period of her life when she was training for the Olympic swimming trials. Shapton provides a unique and original perspective on  swimming, swimming pools and even bathers (that’s swimwear for my non-Aussie readers). It’s described as this –

“What do you with an all-absorbing activity once it’s passed its relevance, and yet you can’t quite give it up? Is it possible to find a new purpose for its rigours and focus? “Swimming Studies” ….explores what it is like to move from a world of competition and discipline to one of recreation and introspection.”

The book includes descriptions of swimming meets and training, executed in a technical, distant style. These descriptions are spliced together with the deeply personal – her mum waiting in the car; the ‘papery’ feel of a new swimsuit; a ritual involving the microwave clock, cooking oats and her personal best time for the 100m breaststroke. The result is far more insightful and telling than the standard sporting-memoir which invariably veers toward a roll-call of triumphant moments.

“I still dream of practice, of races, coaches and blurry competitors. I’m drawn to swimming pools, all swimming pools, no matter how small or murky. When I swim now, I step into the water as though absent mindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races.”

Of course, the beauty of this book is also attributed to the fact that Shapton is incredibly creative, both as an artist and a writer. Her writing style is observant and succinct – an elegant economy of words:

“….Other photographs are of abandoned outdoor pools, weeds sprouting between concrete tiles, water levels disturbingly low: it is like seeing a section of unshaven leg, or an abandoned drink.”

Her artwork is peppered throughout the book but it was the collection of swimming pool water-colours that I lingered over. How could squares and rectangles of blue be so different and so telling? They are. There are seventy-two paintings in the series, each representing a pool that Shapton remembers swimming in. I really wish I had one of her pools hanging on my wall.

For non-swimmers, the chapters in the book may seem bizarre. For swimmers (even the wholly recreational variety), each chapter is a little moment of ‘Yes!’. I have a mental catalogue of favourite bathers (especially the navy and white striped Jantzen one-piece of 1983) and ‘pools I have swum in’ (my current pool of choice is shown at the very top).

There’s a doughnut theme in this book –

“Once a week, driving home after morning practice, my mother takes me to Country Style and lets me choose a doughnut. I take my time deciding before always choosing the same: a five-cents-more Bavarian cream. My mother orders a coffee and sighs. She sighs a lot.”

Which made me think about what my mum occasionally let me have after swim training – a Europe Bar Nougat Honey Log. I don’t think Cadbury are parting with the recipe at this stage, so instead I’ve found this – Toasted Hazelnut Nougat (with chocolate). I know. Amazing. Feel free to thank me for finding it (or better yet, Cherry Tea Cakes for coming up with it.)

4/5 Did I love this book because I love swimming? Perhaps. For everyone else, know that Swimming Studies is an unexpected gem.

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13 responses

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  2. Occasionally I think we might be the same person. I love swimming and used to be a competitive swimmer through the first year of college. And I still love it, though I don’t really do it anymore (since I’ve moved to the landlocked desert of Colorado where no one knows how to swim. seriously.). Next you’ll tell me you have a son named Finn or something crazy like that 🙂

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