Thursday, 9 August 2012

Leanne Shapton, "Swimming Studies"

this is a book all on its own.  Its author is a noted artist and writer in Canada, new to me, and in her teens was a serious competitive swimmer, who went I think twice to Olympic trials.  As she says, "I was pretty good, but not the best."  When you go to Olympic trials for  your country you have to be first or second to make the cut.  Several female members of my family, including my daughter and my niece, have been competitive swimmers - when I was at school, age about 12, I was asked to join the training squad, and declined.  To my everlasting regret.  We seem to have the physique that cuts it in the water.  Most swimmers are fairly tall.  This swimmer, Leanne Shapton, has a mother who originates form the Philippines,and thus she is not that tall, which might explain (she wonders) why she did not make the Olympics.  Who knows.  I was interested to read her book, because these days I am a competitive swimmer myself, though competing only against myself, and not always that successfully, but at least seriously.  Shapton says "When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar".  This is after she has stopped competing.  Me, I am doing it the other way round.  Hurting myself, because doing it hurts, and the wound from the hurt creates a scar, which later I shall touch - perhaps.

There are fascinating details about the lives of competitive swimmers, which I am ashamed to say I have never asked my daughter or my niece, both of whom have experienced these things, about - I knew that swimmers shave off their body hair, to reduce drag.  I didn't know that teenage girls shave each other's backs before a swim meet (gala, as they were called when my daughter was competing, late 80s, early 90s, around the same time of the competition history in this book).  Who knew?  I do not think I have ever had hair on my back, and I do not think teenage girls ever do.  Do they get stubble afterwards???  Shapton includes paintings and sketches in the book, beautiful drawings of swimmers' heads, and also lovely photographs of vintage swimming costumes, which apparently she wears, for preference.

Brief linguistic interlude - she is apparently an Anglophone Canadian, and she calls a magnifying glass a "loupe" - which is the French word for it, in my experience.  Is this normal in Canadian?

Shapton mentions something I have discovered only recently - that serious swimming, whatever your level, hurts.  "Pain on land was there to remind me to get back in the water, where after a certain threshold, the pain went away.  For an athlete pain is not a deterrent, because the only place the pain will be eclipsed is in practice and in competition."

She ends, a Canadian swimmer, whose life, as all competitive swimmers' lives, has been punctuated by 5 am starts in winter, "ever present is the smell of chlorine, and the drifting of snow in the dark".

You don't have to be a swimmer, or interested in swimming, to be interested in this book.  It's worth looking at for the paintings of swimmers and the vintage costumes alone.  But it's something unique.  I think everyone will find something different, and worth experiencing, in it.


Jonathan said...

You almost certainly do have hair on your back, but it is probably so fine that you can't see it unless you look closely with a bright light.

Anonymous said...

Best friend at university was a seriously competitive swimmer when she was at school. She now shies totally away from it - and does not even swim for relaxation. Can't bear it. And refuses to talk about it.