Monday, 21 April 2014

Swimming Studies

Despite the fact that I currently have a case of what is sometimes known as 'Swimmer's Shoulder' (Impingement Syndrome), I rarely swim. Nevertheless I really enjoyed reading 'Swimming Studies' by Leanne Shapton, a book where the author reflects on her experiences as a competitive not-quite Olympic standard teenage swimmer in Canada and on the later meaning of swimming to her in her life as an artist (seemingly spending a lot of time in nice hotels with swimming pools around the world). The book is illustrated with her impressionistic sketches of pools and swimmers, as well as pictures of her apparently extensive collection of swimwear, vintage and modern.

Mostly I liked it because it so well written; beat this for an opening paragraph: 'Water is elemental, it’s what we’re made of, what we can’t live within or without. Trying to define what swimming means to me is like looking at a shell sitting in a few feet of clear, still water. There it is, in sharp focus, but once I reach for it, breaking the surface, the ripples refract the shell. It becomes five shells, twenty-five shells, some smaller, some larger, and I blindly feel for what I saw perfectly before trying to grasp it' (p.1).

There are also some obvious parallels between swimming and running, not least the focus on time: 'Because of time standards - provincial, national, and international - swimmers' goals are temporal and their efforts interior rather than adversarial or gladiatorial. The sport is judged by the indifferent clock. When I swam, I always saw familiar faces in my heats, but I knew them by their times - in descending tenths and hundredths of seconds - as much as by their names' (p.27).

Shapton also caused me to reflect on the transition from the pressure of youth athletics with the dream of Olympic medals to swimming or running in later life. A lot of people, like myself, seem to have taken up running in their 30s, 40s or older, having not run seriously since their school days. I sometimes hear people who were good teenage runners say that they wish they'd stuck with it when they were younger, but reading Shapton reminded me why that often doesn't happen. For the serious young athlete, training can involve putting in hours every day, and missing out on some of the more carefree pursuits of their peers. Of course it can be very rewarding, but also exhausting, monotonous and painful:

'as good athletes, we defined ourselves as special, then submitted to a routine in which we did exactly as we were told. I think of the limitations that "specialness" requires: doing a series of very unspecialised things, very well, over and over, a million times over, so that one special thing might happen, maybe, much later...  I remember the blunt fact that when I was training I was in constant pain. Not just the sharp pain in my knees, which was taken seriously, but a dull, steady pain in my arms, back, shoulders. Pain when I sat down, pain when I got up, pain when I leaned back in a chair, pain when I reached for the salt or sharpened a pencil... It was as though 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 or in competition' p.223-4).

The paradox is that achieving sporting excellence seems to require young people to dedicate themselves to a narrow path precisely at the time when the whole world is opening up in front of them - and that what leads to some realizing their dreams can also destroy the pleasure of running, or swimming, for many years to come.

My own pleasure in swimming never really recovered from when I was learning as a child and the instructor pushed me into the pool when I hesitated before jumping. He then had to dive in to rescue me, and then face my angry dad! But maybe it's not too late to learn some decent technique, a work colleague of mine recently learnt to swim from scratch just so she could take part in a triathlon so I know it can be done. Mind you she was Australian so probably had absorbed some swimmingness just from being down the beach so often!

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