Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui. This week: Well-Being

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.

Two weeks ago, we introduced ourselves in terms of our past, present and aspirational relationships with moving around in water.

Last week, we reported on the section of the book titled Survival.

This week, the topic shifts to Well-Being. Wanna hear about it? Good. Here are some thoughts from our bloggers.

First up, Kim:

I am an okay swimmer. Not great, but not bad. I can freestyle well but it’s a bit of a struggle, a lot of the time, to keep my body parallel to the water (or what Tsui calls here, in reference to one epically well-designed swimmer’s body, “neutrally buoyant”). I’m a sinker: heavier on bottom than top, lots of lower body muscle so dense. I’m also terrified of open water, tbh: the bottom is… (where is the bottom???), there is STUFF in there with me (ugh seaweed ugh jellyfish UGH), and currents + waves = I’m not in control. If given all the options in the world, I would swim for miles and miles – in a swimming pool, with my pull buoy between my thighs.

What’s utterly brilliant about this section of Tsui’s book, for me, is that NONE. OF. THIS. MATTERS. None. The second section of Why We Swim is a love letter to water, framed by the story of a talented open-water swimmer called Kim (#namesake!!) who took to San Francisco Bay at 30, while recovering from a disastrous, traumatizing leg break. Kim is a world record holder multiple times over, but that’s not Tsui’s focus as she gets to know Kim and explores her world in the waters near the Dolphin Club (and between the DC and Alcatraz… a swim I am NEVER doing see above). Instead, what stays with me from this section is Kim’s WHOOPS! every time she hits the water, Tsui’s chronicles of her laughter, her celebration of the act of getting in and moving around, treating her body to the pleasures and the therapies only buoyancy can bring. Peppered in among her tales of learning the Bay’s waterways with Kim, Tsui explores the evidence we have (and some we don’t, yet) for cold water’s therapeutic powers, as well as reams of anecdotal evidence of how immersion makes us feel. The tl;dr – VIBRANTLY ALIVE.

I’ll never swim the waters around Alcatraz, though I may yet swim up and down Lake Ontario, in fits and starts, because cold water immersion is joint-friendly and metabolically supportive, and I want some of that. But as I finish this bit of the book I remember the feeling I feel every time I hit the water – any water. I feel held; I feel lighter than air; I feel able to tumble and turn and twist and dip and dive and come back up, shake it off, take in new air. Damn I miss that feeling!

Here’s Samantha:

Oh, oh, oh. I loved this section of Tsui’s book. It’s just what I came for. I’m interested in exercise we can keep doing a lot of as we age without always trying to juggle exercise and recovery. Note for younger readers: That gets harder as we age and the price of insufficient recovery gets steeper in terms of injury. I love that swimming is a thing you can so a lot of with much less worrying. I also love the section where she talks about the very positive effects of swimming on blood pressure and arthritis. It looks like it’s even better than cycling.

So while I loved the agelessness of swimming and I’m very comfortable swimming outside, even in the ocean, these chapters also made me realize where I might have work to do (or not)–waves and sharks. Also, jellyfish. While I get in the ocean waves usually keep me from doing much actual swimming and I stay away from beaches with sharks. (Or in Australia, away from beaches with ‘triple threat’ signs–sharks, box jelly fish and salt water crocodiles.) The discussion of swimmers’ itch and sea lice was about as unappealing as the health benefits discussion appealed.

A sign for a shark warning bell, with clarificatory image of shark below.

On to Bettina:

Unlike Bonnie Tsui and the people she writes about in the section on “Wellbeing”, I’m not a cold or even an open water swimmer. But this section still strongly resonated with me. I, too, swim for my wellbeing. A large part of this section is dedicated to the story of Kim, the open water swimmer who started after a horrible accident. I would never compare what she went through to my own little tribulations, but definitely, like her, swimming makes me feel better not just physically but mentally.

Swimming is like therapy for me, which is why the last months with all the pools closed in the midst of a global pandemic and after having my entire life change by becoming a mother have been hard. In part, I swim to process. I’ve had some of my best ideas after (not during – while I’m swimming, I’m not focusing on anything else) a good long swim. I don’t think there’s been a time I’ve felt worse after swimming than before, and I’ve been swimming on and off since primary school.

I loved this part of Why We Swim. It was so nice to read the stories of all these people who feel about swimming like I do. I’m a little bit further along in the book now and it’s still my favourite bit so far.

Here’s Diane:

Much of this section resonated for me, as a cold water swimmer with some heart issues (cold water has both benefit and risks), and who has used water as a therapy to heal from injury. Over the years, I have learned about many of the physiological effects of swimming so I could be safe as I got into cold water, but it was great to read the interviews with experts.

Here are some of the phrases that particularly stood out, because they are so true for me:

  • – Smelling the water (the water here smells different depending on the season, and lake water smells different than either the river or the pond near my house);
  • – moving meditation (I don’t swim with music, but I count all my breaths, think about stroke accuracy and body position, gaze at the clouds if I’m on my back, and sometimes hum waltzes inside my head because they are perfect for bilateral breathing);
  • – Being on the edge, the breathlessness and moment of fear as you adapt to the cold water;
  • – Ram Barkai, founder of the International Ice Swimming Association describing the feeling of being intensely, vigorously alive: “The cold and the swim gives one such a rush and sense of health and vigor which is hard to explain unless you have done it.”
  • – Hirofumi Tanaka, a longevity researcher: “I will tell you the one thing that distinguishes swimming from all other forms of exercise. People enjoy it a lot more.” For me, that is key.

I confess I skimmed quickly over the parts about extreme activities, danger, and dealing with sharks or jellyfish. I am comfortable with the odds of being attacked by a shark, have had a run-in or two with little jellyfish and survived, but in general I’m not into doing something so risky that my life is in danger. I’ll push outside my comfort zone within reason, but I never want swimming to stop being fun.

And here’s me, Catherine:

Buoyancy, floating, weightlessness. Freedom. This section, called Well-Being, features stories of swimmers who brave open water, salty water, and cold and icy water, in search of a feeling of oneness, of wholeness. I am in awe of these folks and their feats of athleticism and bravery. At the same time, their swimming goals aren’t my swimming goals.

I enjoy inhabiting the water, moving, floating, enjoying the natural buoyancy of my body. Since I was a child, I’ve been the best floater I know. I love floating, looking up at the sky, hearing nothing but the swish of water. It’s the most peaceful position I know of. Playing in water is the most purely fun thing I know of—kicking and splashing, going under water, diving, emerging, gliding—all of these movements are only possible in and around water, and I love them.

The idea of moving through water for long distances, in cold temperatures, enduring physical difficulties, is not one I immediately relate to. But it’s intriguing enough that I may stretch myself (literally) to see how more swimming and stroking and alternate-side breathing feels over time.

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.