If, like us, you’re still immensely impressed by the performance of Canadian athletes at the summer Olympics in Rio, particularly Penny Oleksiak’s performance, then you will find Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies engrossing.
In this autobiographical novel, Shapton reflects on some important moments in her life that were shaped largely by one activity: swimming. To most of us, swimming is just that – an activity. But to Shapton, swimming was all encompassing. Whether it was swimming for the Olympic trials, or swimming for the pure enjoyment of it, she spent much of her life in the water.
Slipping into a body of water is to Leanne what strumming a chord is to a musician, or what painting is to a painter. It feels right to her. It is in describing how she feels in water where the writing in Swimming Studies becomes so serene and poignant. Swimming becomes a source of inspiration for her, not only as a writer, but also as a painter.
The book’s ruminations on a life spent in water doesn’t follow a straight, linear path. Instead, the book starts at one moment, jumps three years into the future, only to go back ten years in the subsequent chapter. However, the book does focus on the significant stages of Leanne’s life, particularly, her time training for the 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympic trials.
The life of an athlete is often distilled down to superficial statements about having to work hard, train hard, and strive to be the best every day. Leanne’s story goes beyond stale platitudes and shows us the strain of chasing perfection; the almost daily 5:30am practice sessions, the cardio, the strength training, the drills, and the carbo-loading before a race.
Although the book takes us through the routine tasks of an athlete, the reader is also shown how the obsession to get better can manifest in interesting and unique ways depending on the athlete.
For Leanne, the time one minute and 11 seconds (1:11:00) was significant to her as a teenager, but it also haunted her. It was the time she wanted to swim in the 100-metre breaststroke for the Olympic trials. While nuking her breakfast in the microwave on mornings before practice, she would set the timer for 1:11:00. She would then close her eyes and visualize her race, trying to beat the microwave on its countdown to 00:00:00. There are many idiosyncratic moments sprinkled throughout Swimming Studies, like Shapton’s race against her microwave, and they breathe so much life into the book.
But as the reader learns from the outset of the book, Leanne didn’t make it to the Olympics. Once she accepted that she wouldn’t be a competitive swimmer, she had to figure out who she was and what would come next. Identity quickly surfaces as a major theme in Swimming Studies. Is she an athlete? Is she just a casual swimmer? Can she be a teacher? Like the ebb and flow of a tide, Leanne had to find a balance between the competitive swimmer she was in her adolescence, and the person she will become in her adult life. Her struggle to move on from a sport that defined her offers some of the most emotional and relatable moments in Swimming Studies.
Swimming Studies is an engaging read about the author’s journey of self-discovery, and her efforts to reconcile her feelings about swimming after walking away from competitive swimming. The book offers a look into the mind of a former athlete who finds the beauty and tranquility in a sport after years of seeing only competition and five different coloured rings.
Why this is good for teachers
This is a great book for teachers that are looking to include materials into their curriculum that cover the sporting world.
Swimming Studies is an honest look at the life of an athlete. The book, however, doesn’t just explore the physical and mental demands, but also the relationship between the author and the activity that makes her sport a sport: swimming.
Swimming Studies will satisfy teachers that are looking for something that can appeal to the sports fans in their classroom, while challenging their students to view sports from a different perspective.
Why this is good for students
Leanne Shapton’s reflections not only on her career, but also her love of swimming and being in the water, will be thought-provoking for many students, especially those that are involved in a sport or enjoy watching sports.
Shapton’s autobiography reveals her deep appreciation for everything swimming has given her: the friendships, disappointments, familiar smells, bathing suits, and the cathartic, self-affirming moments spent floating calmly on water.
Swimming Studies gives the reader a glimpse into an athlete’s mind that is unique, and young people either involved in sports or just interested in sports will be intrigued by Shapton’s views on swimming.