Until I read Howard Means’s Splash! and Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim, my main encounter with the history of the sport had been a Victorian-inspired swimming gala organised by members of my local team at north London’s Parliament Hill Lido. We competed in novelty races that predated the streamlining of swimming into a competitive sport, swimming upright holding umbrellas in one race, wearing blindfolds in another. We jumped into the pool in vintage dresses to see what it was like to swim hampered by heavy fabrics.
I learned much from both books. The first-known depictions of swimming are pictographs made eight thousand years ago on the walls of the so-called Cave of the Swimmers in the middle of the Sahara, where there were once deep-water lakes. The ancient Greeks often triumphed in battle due to their swimming prowess. After the fall of the Roman Empire, swimming all but vanished from Europe for over a thousand years – it was thought unhealthy and even a sign of witchcraft. Benjamin Franklin and Lord Byron helped repopularise swimming, and as it became popular over the 19th century, when the first public pools were built in Britain (in 1828) and the USA (in 1868), swimmers in those countries stubbornly stuck to breaststroke, snubbing the front crawl of indigenous peoples in the Americas and the South Pacific as uncivilised. In 1875, Matthew Webb, a Royal Navy captain, made the first successful cross-Channel swim; he drowned eight years later while trying to swim across the Niagara River. In 1926, New Yorker Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to make the Channel crossing and the first to use crawl, which allowed her to finish in fourteen and a half hours, two hours faster than the record. The developer of the butterfly kick was a physicist who later worked on the Manhattan Project. An American freestyle swimmer who competed in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 jumped in and right back out again, complaining that the water was too cold. Chairman Mao was a swimmer.
I learned more about a history I already knew something of: racial segregation of swimming places in the USA. The black community of 1940s Washington, DC had access to only five pools; white residents could choose from fifty. At a ‘wade-in’ for civil rights at Biloxi Beach on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, a white mob attacked the demonstrators. Many of the public pools built in the 1920s and 1930s were shuttered when whites refused integration and joined segregated country clubs or built their own backyard pools. In America today, black children drown at a rate five times that of white children.
Means’s book is largely a compendium of such facts, written in a breezy style and illustrated with charming images from swimming history, including a woodcut of a man proceeding through the water with his left hand holding his right ankle, apparently to ease cramp, from Everard Digby’s 1587 guide De Arte Natandi, or The Art of Swimming. After being stripped of his Cambridge fellowship for allegedly being a Catholic sympathiser, Digby had taken up the equally unpopular cause of swimming. The manual, Means points out with editorialising comments (‘really! and why?’), also includes instructions for ‘playing above the water with one foot’, for paring your toenails while lying on your back in the water and ‘for showing four parts of your body above the water at once’. Splash! contains many anecdotes, including a few drawn from the author’s own life: he includes a photo of his grandfather on the New Jersey shore from 1914 and one of himself in 1961 competing in a high-school swim meet to show changes in swimsuit design over the intervening fifty years. While entertaining and informative, in the end the book is choppy, never sticking with a story long enough to gain any glide.
Bonnie Tsui’s book, in contrast, flows beautifully. She asks a more profound question – why do we swim when ‘we humans are not natural-born swimmers’? – and she structures her book around five reasons: survival, well-being, community, competition and, most poetically and appropriately, flow. Tsui is an excellent storyteller and she captures the narrative quality of swimming: the way you move through your swim, whether in a pool or lake or ocean, as your rhythm constantly changes, or the birds fly overhead, or your mind drifts from counting strokes to daydreaming. ‘To swim’, she declares, ‘is to witness metamorphosis, in our environment, in ourselves. To swim is to accept all the myriad conditions of life.’ She writes about how swimming has shaped her own life: how her mother and father met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong and raised her on Long Island, where she joined the swimming team and saw her parents’ fractious relationship ease when the family went to the beach together. ‘I swam through [their] divorce,’ she recounts. ‘I swam through college. I swam from Alcatraz, on a dare. I swam as rehab from knee surgery. I swam across a lake at my wedding … I swam through a miscarriage and on each of the days before my two sons were born.’ She writes of her struggle to learn breaststroke, now her favourite stroke (and my least favourite). ‘As a kid, I worked hard to be good at breaststroke and, by extension, to acquire that quality that I associate with it. I had the propensity to hurry, and still do. But breaststroke won’t let you be impatient; if you do, you lose the glide … Rush, and you go slower.’
Tsui displays the patience of a true breaststroker in unfolding the stories she tells. She goes to Iceland to meet Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a fisherman who became a national hero for surviving a shipwreck in 1984 by swimming six hours in 5°C water back to shore; his four companions all drowned. She swims near her home in San Francisco with a woman who started long-distance swimming after nearly losing her leg to amputation; she goes to Japan to see a samurai swimming competition and to Hainan, the only tropical island in China, to reconnect with her father over an ocean swim. She talks with a US diplomat in wartime Baghdad who taught people stationed there from all around the world how to swim in Saddam Hussein’s pool. Tsui sees swimming as part of human cultural knowledge. ‘When it comes to swimming,’ she adds, ‘it is not just the how-to – the formal instruction – that is critical but also the ways we communicate the importance of that knowledge, through the stories we tell.’
Swimming stories also feature in another recently published book, architecture writer Christopher Beanland’s Lido, alongside enticing photos of outdoor pools around the world, including my old haunt Parliament Hill Lido, described as a democratic space open to all since 1938. Beanland interviews swimmers themselves, from Renay Richardson, a black woman who learned how to swim recently – ‘Swimming is freedom,’ she says – and now frequents London Fields Lido, to Libby Page, the author of the 2018 novel The Lido, a tale of a community banding together, as so many have done, to save their local pool.
Right now, where I live in New York City, the pools are closed, and I haven’t been able to swim. Reading these books might be the closest I come in a while, but they remind me what I have to look forward to.