Fit Reads: Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox

swimmingantarticaSwimming to Antarctica was published in 2005, but I only came across it a few weeks ago. In my book club, we each share two reads we loved and want to recommend to others and Sarah came in December with this book, one she found randomly as a second hand bookshop (I think). As soon as I realized that this book was about EXTREME ATHLETIC FEATS, I was in. I am a sucker for this stuff.

Lynne Cox is a swimmer who, at age fourteen, discovered she had a knack for tackling long distance swims. Her first major swim was across the Catalina Channel. Her second was across the English Channel at 15 — a swim that was a then-world record. Cox quickly moved from breaking records to doing swims no person had ever before completed. (Her personal website has a helpful map, you should check it out).

The swims Cox attempts get increasingly difficult and they develop significance beyond making Cox the first or the fastest. Cox believes that her swims have the power to change things. And they do. Athletic feats can bring people and countries together in a way few other events can, and stories like how the entire nation of New Zealand listened to radio updates her her attempt to be the first woman and fourth person ever to swim the Cook Strait are truly touching. The Soviet Union’s embrace of Cox when she emerges from the Bering Strait is the beautiful, poetic coming together of one swimmer’s dream and the easing of a decades-long political conflict.

But that’s not the only crazy part. Cox’s swims get increasingly physically demanding and dangerous: she swims where sharks might attack (one almost does), where currents threaten to whisk her off to sea at any moment, and she swims in water that’s almost freezing. In one swim in Alaska, she chops ice with her hands to get to the finish line. That’s right. She smashes ice with her hands in order to complete her swim. Cox’s personal abilities are astounding and she continues to challenge herself, both to aid science and just to see if she can do it — all which leads to her swimming in Antarctica. In a regular lyrca swimsuit. No big deal, right?


This is a huge deal. She swims over icebergs, people! ICEBERGS! Her body temperature drops so low she might get hypothermia. The science in the book is basic, but it touches on how adaptable, interesting and unknowable the human body is, especially a body, like Cox’s, which challenges the stereotypical concept of what an “extreme athlete” looks like and is capable of astounding, definition-changing things.

Cox’s accomplishments drive this book, but her prose elevates Swimming to Antarctica beyond your usual “hey, I did some insane stuff and now I’m cashing it in by writing this book” athletic memoir. It’s a meditation on humanity’s ability to change and create and on our relationship with the world around us. Nature can bring us joy and instill in us great fear, and Cox experiences both of these (often at the same time) in each of her swims. I felt so small when I read this book. I, not for the first time, realized just how damn big and dangerous the world is. But I also became astonished by humanity’s capacity to dream, believe and do.

Even when what we dream of is swimming with the penguins.



Fit Reads: Cheer! by Kate Torgovnick


My latest fit read was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Even though I read it over a week ago, I’m still trying to process my thoughts about Mount Everest and dangerous endeavors. But this harrowing read reminded me of another fit read that’s stuck with me long after I read it: Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders by Kate Torgovnick.

Competitive cheerleading is a sport and competitive cheerleaders are athletes. And they are athletes without proper support or oversight. It’s a fascinating, terrifying sport and Cheer! enhanced my ideas as to what it means to be a performer, an athlete and strengthened my belief that student-athletes — especially female student athletes — need more support from their schools.

In 2010, JK and I reviewed this book in 140 seconds. My thoughts were much more fresh then, so take a look:



And, just because it’s awesome, here are some competitive cheerleaders kicking serious ass:


Fit Reads: Friday Night Lights

I read H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights over a year ago, after having read Cheer by Kate Torgovnik (another fab fit read. I’ll review it at some point) — supposedly the “FNL of cheerleading.” Since then, FNL has become my go-to non-fiction recommendation. Everyone should read this book. As much as it is a haunting and intimate portrait of American high school football and how a small town’s psyche revolves around it, it also puts a microscope on the backbone of America: the blue-collar small town that raises their kids to have big dreams — even though they too often don’t have the support, resources or talent to escape.

FNL is now over 20 years old, but it’s as relevant today as it ever was — and not just because it’s spawned two movies and one of the best television shows of the past ten years. In March 2011, honourary fit girl, JK and I, made a Books in 140 Seconds episode about this book (spoiler: we both loved it) and you can watch us in action below:


Book Review: Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

This is a new (and irregular) feature here at Two Fit Girls. I love sports literature. A lot. I loved Friday Night Lights. I loved The Game. I loved Cheer. Basically, if it involves someone competing, it goes on my to-read list. So I’ve decided that — unless I need to read the book for work — I’m going to review the sports-related books I read here.

First up: Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton.

I love Leanne Shapton’s work, and probably would have picked this up no matter what. But the competitive swimming angle intrigued me. I was a competitive summer one summer and hated it. HATED IT. I was a strong and had all my badges. I posted the fastest swim time in my class for Bronze Medallion and Bronze Cross qualifications. But there was something about competitive swimming that irked me. I just hated the tight swimsuits, the repetitive laps and the smell of chlorine.  I hated the bone-chilling dampness that never seemed to go away. I hated wearing a swimcap. I hated it all. So after that single season, I quit.

Which is weird, because every now and then, I’ll join and gym and include recreational swimming in my fitness routine. I don’t mind doing laps if they are just for me. But as soon as they are for someone else, I’m not doing them. I’d rather eat glass.

In Swimming Studies, Shapton reflects on her her competitive swimming career and how she didn’t quite make it to the Olympics.  Her parents signed her up for swimming. Before she could decide whether or not she liked it, she was good at it. She became better. She decided to go for it. She didn’t make it. She tries to separate herself from swimming, but can’t. Then, in her late 30s, she returns to competitive swimming.

The sport is pervasive in the book (I mean, it’s even in the title!), the fact that Shapton was a swimmer and not a sprinter or archer or pole vaulter doesn’t matter. Because the book is about isn’t really swimming. It’s how being really good at something — but not good enough — goes on to define you for several years after it happens. Even when no one else cares. It’s impossible to no longer be that person who swam 8 times a week and lived and breathed the breaststroke just because you are no longer swimming. Shapton struggles with recreational swimming, especially in open water — she’s “pool-trained,” after all — and with how people like her husband can see her outside her swimming identity when she can’t. Shapton’s writing moves fluidly from past to present,  not-quite-stream-of-consciousness narrative that invites the reader inside Shapton’s mind. It’s emotional, intimate writing, and definitely Shapton’s most personal and probably her most vulnerable work yet.  You go completely inside her head and her swimming career, see how she obsessed about her times, routine and weight. Her status as a swimmer — she was once ranked 8th in the nation — doesn’t matter as much as her swimsuit collection or her disgusting “muffin in a mug” breakfast concoction. The reader never escapes “Shapton the swimmer” because Shapton herself can’t.

Swimming Studies is about how our past shapes and defines us well into the future. And everyone — even the least athletic among us — can relate to that.