Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui This week: Survival

Hi readers– we’ve been reading a new book for this installment of the FIFI book club. It’s called Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. We’ll be reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the next several Fridays. We’d love to have you join us and add your comments to the mix.

Last week, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

This week, we report on the section of the book titled Survival.

First up, Kim:

At first, casual glance, “Survival” (section one of Why We Swim) looked to me like a basic history of some kinds of swimming (officially, as the title suggests, swimming to save your ass), and I confess I was a bit disappointed at the thought of putting down my other current bedtime read (I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell) for it. I’m not sure what I wanted or expected; in hindsight I think I just wanted to be soothed, lulled, by words about water the way a good mid-day swim soothes and lulls me. Maybe I was asking too much of Tsui too early, I thought as I turned page one over to page two. Maybe this book is not going to be the substitute for my longed-for, desperately missed swims at the tail end of this terrible terrible pool-less time.

QUICKLY, though, I knew I was wrong. Tsui bookends “Survival” with the story of The Human Seal, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson – an Icelandic man who survived six hours in near-freezing water after his fishing trawler capsized, making it to shore only to have to swim out and around the cliffs of volcanic rock where he first landed to get safely home. The story is gripping: it is a brush with death like no other, a reminder of the power of water to harm us, batter us, but also to hold us, to secure us, and it’s ultimately, in the section’s final telling, a story about the power of community to hold story, to remember its shared history in and through the water. Tsui travels to Iceland; she meets and forms a bond with Guðlaugur; finally, she participates in the annual swim that the community holds to remember his extraordinary encounter with the water, swimming 6km in his village’s swimming hall (240 lengths of a 25m pool FYI).

I put the book down and made a mental note: I know what I’m doing as soon as I’m allowed to be in a pool for longer than an hour again. I’ve never swum more than 2km without properly stopping; this will be a chance for me to show the water what I’m made of, and for the water to challenge but also to buoy me.

Here’s Samantha:

I loved the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson and the author’s tale of swimming in Iceland but others have talked about that. I was also intrigued that other animals instinctively know how to swim and that humans have to learn. Of course, I remember learning to swim and that knowledge giving me a little bit more freedom near water as a child. I also remember teaching my own children to swim and feeling relieved when they got the hang of it.

I was fascinated too by Tsui’s stories of people who swim to the bottom of the ocean and stay there for a long time. The physiological adaptions the body makes after diving for a long time make me realize how flexible biology is. Not all parts of being human are fixed. Stories of people who dive and swim without supplemental oxygen always makes me realize that while I know how to swim and I’m confident in the water, I’m confident near the water’s surface. My head and face can be under but I’m not very good at staying beneath the water or even swimming to the bottom of pools. My swimming is utilitarian, it keeps me from drowning, but I wouldn’t be able to contribute to a family’s survival by diving for pearls. Of course my swimming is also for pleasure, and I gather that’s the subject of the next section.

Next up, Diane:

My normal choice for non-fiction is history and anthropology, so I was pleasantly surprised to dive into this book and read about the Neolithic images of swimmers found in Egypt at a time when the Sahara was green, and the Bajau nomads and Moken (free-diving fishers from southeast Asia). Those swimmers felt like kin, or at least kindred spirits.

I have always felt a deep, primal connection to water. In my family, we all learned to swim for safety, but I was the only one who loved swimming at every possible opportunity. Even my medieval research involves swimming and fishing. My favourite myths are those of the selkies and Sedna.

As a cold water swimmer, the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson was interesting, but I couldn’t help going into ice swimmer mode: did he strip off his clothes so he could swim faster? How could he have walked so far without getting into warm, dry clothes first? What was his stroke rate? When I am training properly, I know I can do a km in sub-5C water, but not much more. I can barely imagine surviving as long as he did. I have swum 6 km in open water, but unlike Kim I have no desire to do it in an enclosed pool. I would happily join Bettina for an outdoor 6 km swim in Iceland though, especially if I also get to visit some of the geothermally heated lagoons, pools or beaches to warm up afterwards.

And now, Bettina:

Like others, I was absolutely fascinated with the story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, and with the community he inspires in Iceland. It made me want to go there and do the swim they hold every year in memory of his feat. (I’ve always toyed with the idea of doing a long swim somewhere interesting. Like swimming the Bosporus or something like that – or swimming 6k in Iceland. One day it’ll happen, hopefully…)

The other parts of the “Survival” section were interesting too, like the bit about swimming in the Stone Age, and the section about “sea nomads” – people living in traditionally aquatic societies – but they didn’t grip me quite as much as Guðlaugur’s story. I’m even more excited to talk about the next section of the book in our upcoming post though!

Here’s me, Catherine:

Others are talking about Guðlaugur Friðþórsson’s astounding feat of survival, of which I am also in awe. It’s also one of many reminders in this book that we are all animals, managing our relationship with water. For me, reading about the author’s childhood, swimming at Jones Beach with her brother and parents, also reminded me of ways water helps us survive. For Tsui, swimming helped her survive difficult relationships, uncomfortable situations, and upheavals within her family.

I can relate. When my sister gave birth to her third child, I went down to South Carolina for 2.5 weeks (17 days, but who’s counting) to help out with her two other kids, ages 5 and almost 3. I love these children fiercely, but was overwhelmed by the details of tending to them for (luckily only) 14 hours a day.

However, we all experienced instant respite once we got to the local pool, which we rushed to every day. There might be screaming or crying in the car, pitched battles over some toy or sippy cup, but once we got out of the car and spied that blue water, everyone calmed down (myself included). It’s still true. My sister, her kids and l feel most at peace with ourselves, each other and the universe when we’re near or in water. In this way, water conveys the necessary feeling that life is good, life is doable.

Like Tsui, I wish we were amphibious. Remembering that we’re not is important for maintaining a respectful relationship with water. I love its power to envelop me and hold me, but I also know that it is bigger and more powerful than me, too.

So readers, what do you think? Are you reading or have you read the book? We’d love to hear any comments you have. Feel free to take a dip into the book if you’re interested.