Swim: Why We Love the Water

For nearly all of the 15,000 miles I have swum so far in my life, I have followed a black line in a pool. It’s hard to explain how simultaneously dull and exciting it has been. My days as an elite swimmer ended just after college, but my love of the sport, that sport, my sport, has always remained. The feel of water-saturated air or the smell of chlorinated water or wintergreen oil (used in rubdowns before competition) sends an endorphin shot into my brain like nothing else ever will.

This coexisting love and addiction to both the sport and the pastime of swimming is what Lynn Sherr has attempted to capture in her new book, Swim: Why We Love the Water. 

Best known as a correspondent for the ABC news magazine 20/20, Sherr takes a broad brush and methodical approach to an elemental subject. She writes with enthusiasm as she travels from evolution in tide pools to the construction of backyard pools, and from the development of the modern swimming strokes to scientific musings on whether giraffes can swim (the animals are a favorite of Sherr’s and the subject of her wonderful book Tall Blondes). It’s a lot of ground to cover and makes more for a collection of factoids and vignettes than for a narrative, but there are many high-water marks in the course of the crossing. Illustrations are generously laid into the prose, sometimes on top of one another, and give the work a look that evokes both a school project and an Ode to Swimming Joy.
From the first pages, Sherr dives into the subtleties and nuances of what makes swimming an allure for most and a necessity for many. She rightly and repeatedly points out that we humans evolved from prehistoric fish and opines as to whether or not that fact drives us to take the plunge. She also outlines the reality that the modern application of humans to water can have disastrous results for the unprepared. 

There are particularly poignant moments in Sherr’s interviews with the select athletes who compete at the top of swimming as a sport. Swimmer-athletes endure grueling daily training and dietary regimens, as well as a unique species of psychological strain caused by swimming’s intense, singleminded focus. Technological stretches (think high-tech bathing suits) have combined with modern training methods to lower world records dramatically in the last few decades. The subsequent competition is relentless. The admission by Olympians that they avoid the natatorium completely after retirement says much of the dedication demanded, and reflects something of my own experience. 

All told, Swim is a gratifying read that enthusiasts will find buoyant.