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.