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Second to actually swimming, I love reading books about swimmers, swimming feats and almost any story with a unique and exciting angle on the sport. In the last year or so I’ve recommended Glenn Stout’s excellent, Young Woman and the Sea, which is part history of ocean swims and part adventure about Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking crossing of the English Channel. I recommended the outstanding Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway, which follows a group of poverty-stricken kids who began training in irrigation ditches and made it all the way to the Olympics.
And this week, if you love to swim at all, even if it’s just a few cannonballs and splashing with your kids at the town pool, I highly encourage you to read Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui. Bonnie is a bad ass swimmer in her own right, using the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay as her home training ground. She’s swum in Iceland and Australia and Hawaii. And Why We Swim peels back the layers of why humans, from our earliest ancestors to now, are drawn to water. Why it comforts us and challenges us and in many ways heals us. Filled with insane stories of ocean survival, Arctic swimming feats and even training in a war zone in Baghdad, the book is loaded with action while also examining the spiritual and mental side of being the water.
In short, I loved it, which is why I was thrilled when Bonnie responded to my request to be featured in this week’s Three Answers here on Books & Biceps, our Q&A that gives us a behind-the-scenes peak into the writing of the book. Let’s get to it:
I loved how you chose the topics of each chapter to highlight the different ways swimming can define us - from the cultural with the Moken, to the societal with Guolauger and the individual with Kim Chambers and more. How did you choose what to focus on in each chapter? Did you have an idea before starting or did you uncover the path in your research?
I spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure the book. The title, Why We Swim, poses a question, and the book is organized into five different ways we can answer that question: Survival, Well-Being, Community, Competition, and Flow. The stories that I included all came from years of following my curiosity: people who told me about cool things that happened to them, news stories I read, studies I came across in my research. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I wanted to allow for serendipity, too.
My personal favorite little moment in the book came when you finished the Guolaugssund with an individual medley. I do something similar in my races. When I lived in Los Angeles I did the Hermosa Beach to Manhattan Beach Pier to Pier swim and I’d do butterfly the last 50 yards into shore. You mention that you did it to show that you were in good form. I think that would be my answer.... But I also think I do it as a way to show the swim hasn’t beaten me. Maybe. Was that the only time you finished a swim with a flourish of strokes? Why do you do it as well?
Hah, I loved that you asked that! Mostly because I just love the I.M., and I really enjoy swimming all the strokes in display like that. Also it just feels really good.
You interviewed so many intriguing people in the book, many of whom accomplished insane feats in the water. What was the one story that has stuck with you since writing the book that still boggles your mind and why?
Well, I can't help but point to the Icelandic fisherman Gudlaugur Fridthorsson*. He is a special friend of my family by now: I view him as an extraordinary human being who survived, who persevered through impossible, tragic circumstances and lived to tell -- but I also see him as Laugi, the kind, funny guy who knows how to win my kids over with a mountain of treats when we visit him in Iceland. He's a national treasure.
*This man survived 6 hours in 41-degree water after his boat sank, swimming several miles to shore, then trekked another three hours over frozen lava fields to find help. You have to read the full story in the book.
I do a Masters Swimming workout at least 2 days a week and my favorite part is showing up to see what the workout is. I have had a bunch of people reply to Books & Biceps and ask me about getting started in swimming - and lots of others who have started on their own and then asked what, exactly, to do in the water. I’ve found that showing up to the pool with a cool workout as a challenge is 80% of getting in a good swim. It takes the thinking out of it and you can just get into the water and follow the plan and get a great workout.
This article on the US Masters Swimming site explains the basics of what you’re after in a session and actually includes 5 useful beginner workouts. It includes pull buoys and kick boards and all that stuff, but if you don’t have any of the toys yet, just do freestyle or kick instead of using the equipment.
TRICK SHOT OF THE WEEK: This never, ever happens, but I drained my one-handed half court shot attempt (in very windy conditions, if I do say so myself) on the VERY FIRST TRY. Watch it here.
A HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who has bought 1996: A Biography so far. It has been an absolutely amazing launch week and I can’t decide what has been the highlight:
Most importantly… HAVE YOU BOUGHT YOUR BOOK YET?
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