With the summer months closing in, what better time to take a look at the pleasures, benefits and history of swimming? Lynn Sherr, a former TV correspondent, writes in her new book, “SWIM: Why We Love the Water,” about the aquatic pastime. An excerpt.
Swimming forces you to focus and sets the mood to meditate; it allows you to dream big dreams. Silent film star and swimming champion Annette Kellerman, whose invention of the one-piece bathing suit in the early 1900s made women as agile as their male mates in the sea, wrote, “Swimming cultivates imagination; the man with the most is he who can swim his solitary course night or day and forget a black earth full of people that push.” Or as Henry David Thoreau put it, we should each explore our “private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.”
Even the suggestion of swimming can be stirring. Watch a swimmer pass a building with a pool: the whiff of chlorine produces a wistful smile. Sit with swimmers when a TV commercial shows someone in the water: they actually stop and watch. “It’s something where you can exert yourself and feel incredible afterwards,” explains a former coach. “If you go out for a really hard run and give yourself the same exertion, you can’t eat; you feel so miserable, all you want to do is cool off and drink. If you have a great swim workout, you want to go have a feast. Look at people’s faces when they leave the athletic club: the ones who walk out looking like they feel great are the ones who just swam.”
Swimmers are special, a swim mom tells me — so focused on their sport, so disciplined about their workouts, they have to do well in school. A former competitor says he used to resent it when he was introduced as “the swimmer” because it made him feel like an outsider. Now he’s proud of it “because it takes a lot of commitment. And because I know that I can survive.”
Swimming is brimming with idioms about our struggle for survival, about striving and thriving in an occasionally hostile world. Striking out as an iconoclast? You’re swimming against the tide. Getting nowhere? You’re treading water. Wrong about something? You’re all wet. (That one’s insidious; for many of us, wet can be wonderful.) How many times have you talked about “sticking a toe in” or “diving off the deep end” or finding yourself “in over your head”? And it’s not just subprime mortgages that are “under water.” We blithely refer to a change in circumstance as the “tide turning.”
The real thing can stop you in your tracks, as one English Channel contender recently learned. Three hundred yards from the shore, after stroking his way through eighteen hours of turbulent waters, he was caught in a turning tide, a surge so powerful he couldn’t chop through to the finish line. “It’s mental torture,” his coach,
Fiona Southwell, tells me. “You have to dig deep.” Southwell, a cheery blonde Brit who completed her own Channel crossing at age fifty-one to compensate for empty-nest syndrome when her children went off to college, gives me the secret to her nineteen-hour, twenty- two-minute achievement: “I tied an imaginary rope to the shore in Dover, where I began. The other end was tied to the beach in France, where my eighty-three-year-old parents would be waiting to meet me. Every stroke I took, I imagined pulling myself closer to them, and when I hit a wall my son reminded me not to let go until I stood on French soil. It worked! They were just pulling me in.”Video: Al and Matt sync and swim
Life lessons from swimming permeate the foundations of our society, with references in everything from the Bible to rock music. In a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript accompanying Psalm 69, King David — naked, a crown atop his curls — swims through an ocean of blue waves (“the deep waters” of despair), praying for salvation. The Talmud says that a Jewish father must do several things for his son: circumcise him, teach him Torah, find him a wife, teach him a trade. And teach him how to swim. According to Rabbi Anne Ebersman, director of Jewish programming at New York’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, that can be interpreted two ways: First, to prevent drowning in a world where trade depended on sea travel. “Ships were dangerous,” she explains to me. “And probably there were stories about drowning. But swimming can also be seen more metaphorically,” she goes on, “how to take care of yourself, knowing that you can master something by yourself. So it’s a basic skill to get through life and also a metaphor to get through life.” The same point is made by an advisor to Mohammed and one of the major voices of Islam, Umar Ibn al-Khattab. “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse-riding,” he says, a directive often interpreted as serving the soul as well as the body.
More contemporary moral guidance comes from the bighearted blue fish named Dory in the movie Finding Nemo. When Marlin, the clownfish, gets the grumps, Dory grabs his fin, wriggles onward, and sings, “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”
Andrew Grove, the genius behind Intel, called his memoir about escaping from war-ravaged Hungary Swimming Across. In it, he talks about his childhood — when he was known as Grof — and he relates the story of his favorite high school teacher, Mr. Volenski, addressing assorted parents at a school meeting. “Life is like a big lake,” he tells them. “All the boys get in the water at one end and start swimming. Not all of them will swim across. But one of them, I’m sure, will. That one is Grof.” Grove recalls that his parents “told so many people about [the story] that over time, my swimming across the lake of life became a family cliché. [But] I continued to get some encouragement from each telling. I hoped Mr. Volenski was right.” He was.
Grove got out. And up. He ends his memoir this way: “I am still swimming.”
From the book "Swim" by Lynn Sherr. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive