The Joy of Swimming, by Lisa Congdon

Searching for a gift for your Olympic Trials qualifier? Look no further… Hot off the press, released this month by Chronicle Books, is Lisa Congdon’s The Joy of Swimming. The subtitle says it all: A Celebration of Our Love For Getting in the Water. Less a story than a piece of graphic art between two covers, Congdon’s book invites you to dip in and out, immersed in a swimmer’s world.

From colorfully painted portraits to back-in-the-day photographs to loads of did-you-know nuggets, all delivered in a dreamscape style, this is one of those books that’s required on every swimmer’s bookshelf. It’s as accessible to an age-grouper as it is charming to the oldest Masters swimmer.

This is the work of a fine artist and illustrator; it’s about the visual presentation more than the prose. And Congdon is a serious talent with the brush. Indeed, a look at her website ( reveals a client list of bold faced names – from Harvard to the MoMA to Martha Stewart Living. She’s also a swimmer’s swimmer with an identity dipped in chlorine, just like the rest of us. For her, it began in Northern California, in San Jose and a summer team called the Shadowbrook Splashers. She includes a few 70s sepia toned photos from those days, which look pretty much exactly like my memories of the Overlee Swim Club in Arlington, Virginia, where my own life was first swallowed up by swimming.

For Congdon the joys of swimming include the ephemera that’s so familiar to anyone who spent his or her formative years at swim meets and endless practices. There’s the chicken nugget sized medals (shoeboxes of which still sit in my parent’s basement); the rainbow of disposal summer meet ribbons that are never disposed of; the parkas; the evolution of goggles and suits and caps.

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The Aquatic Ape – by Elaine Morgan

We always knew we were part dolphin. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt a stronger intuitive kinship with whales or seals or sea otters than any lumbering ape or mischievous monkey. It’s the aquatic mammals that swim among us that we relate to best, not the hairy ones in the jungle. According to Elaine Morgan’s 1982 volume ‘The Aquatic Ape – A Theory of Human Evolution’, there’s an evolutionary reason for that connection: We came from the sea first.

Morgan writes that human evolution involved a long period of aquatic adaption, followed by a return to the land. Meaning, we’ve evolved as much from the mammals of the deep as we have from primates. Indeed, what makes us most different from apes – our aptitude for language, our (mostly) hairless bodies, our upright walks – are hardly ‘unique’, but the very things that we share with our aquatic mammal brethren.

You don’t have to buy it. Maybe you think that whole evolution thing is just a load of pagan bunk. But if you’re a swimmer, the ideas Morgan articulates at least must strike a chord.

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Swim – Why We Love the Water, By Lynn Sherr

Longtime TV news correspondent, Lynn Sherr, delivers an essential tome on all things aquatic…

Consider this the more accessible, Americanized version of Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, featured in the post below. Its ambitions are similar – to capture the culture and the magic of our sport through its timeless history. The book jacket promises to take you from ‘Julius Caesar to Michael Phelps, from Neptune to Nemo.’ No small task, particularly for a book that weighs in at just 187 pages, not including the credits.

Like Sprawson, the Hellespont, that four-mile strait of water that connects Europe to Asia, enchanted Sherr. Her crossing of it proves to be the personal thread that connects her narrative through the sport. The Greek myth of Hero and Leander, Lord Byron’s crossing in 1810, these swims appear to be the swimmer-writer’s catnip, the irresistible theme that elevates swimming to literary substance.

On this final day of summer, Sherr’s Swim seems a fine farewell to the months when the masses take the plunge. Like the season itself, it’s not too weighty, not too concerned with the deeper questions beneath. You’ll find cleverly titled, bullet-pointed asides like ‘The Skinny on Dipping’, where we learn that “an estimated 51.9 million Americans swim at least six times a year” and that there are about 10.4 million residential pools in the U.S., and another 300,000 public ones. You’ll learn that, according to Sherr, the ‘weirdest swimming spin-off’ is underwater hockey and that the ‘most annoying thing about swimming gear’ is caps that don’t keep your hair dry.

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Haunts of the Black Masseur – The Swimmer as Hero

Exploring the cultural history of swimming across the world… A brilliant work by Charles Sprawson

I picked up this book while wandering a used bookstore outside of Dallas in 1998. The title made no sense to me, but the subtitle certainly did. Especially at the ego-drenched age of 23, before careers began and humility gets forced upon you when you realize that no one cares about your pool-bound exploits. The swimmer as hero, indeed. I could relate to that. Swimmers, particularly those who’ve stood atop podiums, are not lacking in self-regard.

I took it home and opened it up and waited for it to confirm all my heroic impulses. It didn’t. Instead, I found a deep scholarly look at the true character of swimmers – isolated souls that somehow find fulfillment in a lonely sensory-deprived act. In his introduction, the author writes that, at a young age, he formed “a vague conception of the swimmer as someone rather remote and divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed. It seemed to me that it appealed to the introverted and eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” Ok, guilty as charged, I thought.

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Moving Water – A Summer of Jim Harrison

America’s greatest living novelist… and his obsession with rivers, dams, and the way we move through water…
I’ve been told to read the man for years. Told by reviews and trusted folks with trusted taste, but mostly by an uncle who’s lucky enough to count the man as a friend. Jim Harrison has loomed large for a long time, one of those elders whose wisdom you know you’ll get to when you’re ready. Save for a handful of his novellas I wasn’t ready until this summer. Until I picked up a book called The River Swimmer, and then went backwards and forwards, consuming everything I could by a writer who seems to be a Zen master in the art of Living Well.

It should not come as a surprise that Jim Harrison is also obsessed by water and our relationship with it. For the last four decades his books have been awash in rivers and dams and fishing and the life-lusting men and women drawn into the currents. The eponymous River Swimmer is a 17-year-old farm boy named Thad, living on an island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – the rich wild terrain of so much of Harrison’s work. Thad is drawn to the water with a compulsion that only a swimmer can understand. Or maybe a writer drawn to the keyboard, or an addict to a favored drug… or hell, any other passionate soul that can’t quite feel at home in the world.

(I realize this isn’t your accustomed Cap & Goggles ‘inside swimming’ post. Bear with me. This is the Aquatic Arts at its finest…)

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Leanne Shapton – Swimming Studies

Have you read this terrific memoir by Leanne Shapton? Leanne is a friend and fellow Canadian swimmer, and if you swam in or near Canada in the late 80s and early 90s, you’ll surely recognize some of the characters that populate these pages. Swimming Studies won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. For good reason – it captures the feeling of what it means to be a swimmer as well as anything published. It’s about the lonely moments, the forgotten sensations that still fill your dreams. And it’s filled with haunting honesty like this: “When I swim now, I step into water as though absent-mindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races.” Yeah, it’s that kind of good.

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