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Swimming Studies

August 7, 2014 by Reader's Connection

Swimming Studies

I was moved at the Natatorium, last summer, watching an evening of National Championship swimming. A woman in an outer lane, the lane closest to me, was so far behind the others. I don’t often attend this sort of meet, and I felt bad for her.

The woman with the fastest time after preliminary heats occupies lane four. Second-fastest is in lane five, third in lane three. The rest, in descending order, are in lanes six, two, seven, one, and finally, eight. This placement accounts for the inverted-V formation that typically occurs during a race. A swimmer who leads from lane one, two, seven or eight is often called “outside smoke.”

So my swimmer at the Natatorium was part of a pattern, like a migrating goose. Do I feel better for her, or worse?

The explanation is from Leanne Shapton’s book Swimming Studies. Shapton herself was a competitive swimmer, a wonderful swimmer, but never quite good enough to make the Olympic team. The book is a memoir about her swimming years, a poignant study of a life that won’t go the way that a young person wants it to. You need to put aside any ideas you have of what a normal sports book should be.

Having failed to be an Olympian, Shapton has succeeded quite nicely as an artist, journalist, author and publisher, and the book is full of pictures: there are impressionistic watercolor paintings of swimmers, small paintings of odors, photographs of bathing suits–she owns a preposterous number of them–and other visuals. A chopped-up version of some of the suits is available on GoogleBooks –I like her comment on suit # 13–but you really need to look at the book.

Yes, I said small paintings of odors. “Fourteen Odors,” to be exact. Number 10 is Coach: Fresh laundry, windbreaker nylon, Mennon Speed Stick, Magic Marker and bologna. If you open this Mister Motley book review, you’ll see a shadowed photo of all fourteen. Coach is second from the top on the right. I don’t understand how that green can be the right color for that combination of odors, but this isn’t a great photo, and again, you need to look at the book yourself.

I’m about halfway through it. I love to swim laps, but have never been much good at it. Shapton takes me to a different universe of swimming, where teenagers are immersed in the sport for huge chunks of every week, where “most breaststrokers have knee problems, are advised to ice regularly and take eight aspirin a day.” This tale of a swimmer who didn’t quite make the cut is a look at her childhood, her family, at Canada (and travels elsewhere) and at how you might turn into another sort of person when you can’t be the one you expected to be.



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