ABOUT A YEAR ago I started learning how to swim. Not for the first time: I had suffered through Saturday morning lessons in dank, echoing pools smelling of waterlogged concrete and urine, and even graduated from “guppy” to “tadpole,” or maybe vice versa, one summer at day camp. But some stubborn instinct to float when I should sink, to breathe in when I should blow out, always held me back: I seemed destined to remain a tadpole, or a guppy, forever. For years I conveniently forgot my bathing suit at pool parties, strategically wet my hair so no one would notice that I hadn’t gone under.
There is something superhuman about swimmers: Michael Phelps, with his spatulate torso, or Dara Torres at forty-one in the 2008 Olympics, a long hard whip of muscle. Part of this is their appearance, the hydrodynamic shape created by moving through water more than moving through air. But it is also their nonchalance about the elemental awkwardness of swimming, with all its related embarrassments. As a swimmer you spend most of your time nearly naked, cold, and wet. You walk around with the butt of your suit drooping and drippy; you risk blowing out little oysters of mucus when you want to blow out air. A swimmer’s stoicism consists not just of brute muscular perseverance but also of enduring—or somehow just not minding—his absurd vulnerability as a land animal dropped into water.
This seemed heroic to me, and a model for gracefully enduring the absurd vulnerabilities of adulthood. So around the time I turned thirty, I bought myself a series of private lessons at the local YMCA and soon was under the instruction of a championship swimmer from the Balkans. He wore a permanent grin and had chimp-like proportions: long arms, splayed knees, flappy feet. “Push through the nose!” he would shout when I inhaled at the wrong moment and found myself Neti-potting with pool water. After six lessons, my dog paddle matured into a passable crawl. And almost immediately, I changed jobs and got pregnant—as if learning to swim were a necessary prelude to other elements of grown-up life that I had been postponing.
The connection between swimming and growth lies at the heart of Leanne Shapton’s new book, a beautifully written and illustrated meditation on swimming as it pertains to art, marriage, and family. It grasps, more than anything I have ever read, the alien world of the pool, and how the lessons learned there can reverberate on land as well. It is a memoir about disconnection—how our passions can break us apart from the habits and emotions of daily life—and about reunion: how they can also sustain us, create continuity, provide a home.
Nominally, Shapton’s book is also about failure, or at least about near-misses with greatness. Shapton swam competitively as a teenager near Toronto and then as a college student at McGill, went to the Canadian Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992, and at one point was ranked eighth in the country. But she never made the team: “I trained, ate, traveled, and showered with the best in the country, but wasn’t the best; I was pretty good.”
Even being “pretty good” at competitive swimming, however, required an obsessive commitment to the sport. For most of her young adult life, Shapton got up every day before sunrise to train for several hours, traveled on weekends to meets in distant parts of the country, and spent her vacations eating huge plates of spaghetti in preparation for hundreds of laps in the pool. She vividly describes pre-dawn mornings in the kitchen: setting the microwave timer at 1:11:00—her ideal time to swim the 100 meter breaststroke—and visualizing every second of the race as she cooks her favorite breakfast, “muffin-in-a-mug” (instant bran-muffin mix and milk).
Swimming provided structure and an identity, but it was also constrictive. In 1989, Shapton quit her team and made a game attempt to advance her mental age to what she calls her “swimming age”: “After quitting … I voraciously try to catch up on the rituals of being suburban sixteen, seventeen, filling my head with steep French literature and new music, notebooks with bad poetry, gut with crushes, sketchbooks with agonies of dragons, raccoons, and smudgy Gothic calligraphy.” But she continued to train alone, as if her muscles couldn’t stop performing the function to which they had grown accustomed. When she started competing again at McGill, it was more on her own terms, age and swimming age finally in harmony.
She left the sport after college, but her book—all simple short sketches, both verbal and visual—reveals the imprint that competitive swimming made on the rest of her life. First there is her career as an artist, something she understands as a textural encounter, a feel for what she’s drawing, just as when swimming she experienced a “feel” for the water: “a knowledge of watery space … an animal empathy for contact with an element.” Shapton’s bonds with artistic mentors echo her early relationships with coaches; her ability to perform the basic tiny motions of her craft again and again derives from the repetitive focus of athletic training. “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.” Just as she forced herself to do hundreds of laps as a teenager, Shapton now draws or paints repetitive series, many of which appear in the book: bleeding-edge watercolor studies of a woman swimming, bright and bulbous images of the thermal baths at Vals, Switzerland.
Then there is her marriage. Shapton’s two most recent books, Was She Pretty? and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, are both studies in love’s imperfections: the first a catalog of elliptic stories about exes, the second a literal, or faux-literal, auction catalog revealing the history of a couple through their shared relics (“Lot 1032: A fortune-cookie fortune, kept by Morris in his wallet, reading: ‘In life, it’s good not to get too comfortable.’ … $5-10.”)Shapton has a sharp eye for the tiny failures of love, for all the ways in which a beloved partner can also be a source of befuddlement, frustration, even despair. In a recent interview she remarked, “I think all happy marriages, partnerships, friendships are happy despite something.”
In Swimming Studies, Shapton’s marriage is happy despite her husband’s blind spot for swimming. He lacks her “feel” for the water and can’t comprehend the basic details of competition, the rarified and extreme world that Shapton inhabited for so long. Does it matter? (As the comic-book nerd from “The Simpsons” says of a similarly mixed couple: “But Aquaman, you cannot marry a woman without gills. You're from two different worlds!”) In the process of smartly deconstructing Jaws!, Shapton decides that it does not: James teaches her the pleasure and peace of “bathing,” as opposed to the control and fierce tension of racing: “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.”
Swimming Studies is a remarkably encyclopedic account of the tastes, smells, sights, and revelations of Shapton’s swimming life. Particularly for those of us exploring the mysterious affinities between our underwater selves and our dry-land selves, it is a rich and insightful offering.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.