Book Club · swimming

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

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.

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

Two weeks ago, we reported on the section of the book titled Survival.

Last week, the topic shifted to Well-Being.

This week, we’re focusing on the notion of Community swimming. Here’s what we have to say. First up, Kim:

This section of Tsui’s book means a lot to me, because it thinks about swimming and inclusivity. Who gets to swim? Who gets to decide who gets to swim? It’s a huge topic, and we’ve talked about it on the blog before too. Tsui’s not especially political in this text, but her status as a person of colour / an Asian woman in the US means that the issue of BIPOC access to shared public spaces arises for her naturally in the course of the narratives she weaves. It’s been interesting for me to note throughout the book, for example, that in certain cultures swimming is simply privileged, in large measure out of a need to survive: if you live in Iceland or Japan, you’re going to need to know how to stay afloat just in case. Tsui comes from a swimming family and has made her own family a swimming one too (and we learn more about that in the next section of the book, FYI). She identifies with the water, as a person of the water – and she well knows that barriers to the water for others (for example, lots of Black folks in the states) arise when those folks are not permitted, because of structural exclusions based on race or class or gender, to identify in the same way.

I find it really moving that Tsui’s narrative in this section is anchored by stories of military service-people from all over the world learning to swim while stationed in Baghdad; it’s a simple and warming story, but also and utterly brilliant reminder that the community in which you find yourself (in this case, one united by mission and circumstances, not racial or national characteristics) can have an enormous impact on the way you are permitted to envision yourself in the world. Shifting the terms by which we structure our communities can, in turn, have a large effect on how members of our communities see themselves in relationship not just to others, but to a whole host of public spaces.

Here’s me, Catherine:

This section was my favorite of the book. Why? Because swimming pools have always struck me as happy centers for communities to gather. Because the community pool can be a microcosm of society, revealing diverse activities, generations, families, teams, friendship pods and ad hoc groupings that comprise civic life. Swimming in a public pool or lake with other people makes me feel almost patriotic—proud to be part of a collective, united under the (beach) umbrella of recreation and good clean fun.

But here we see collective swimming and (more importantly) swimming lessons conducted under the worst circumstances: war and foreign occupation, run by governments and military organizations with rigid hierarchies. And yet. Jay Taylor does what he can and what he knows for everyone who comes to the lavishly decorated palace pool in Baghdad, in search of respite from the dangerous and dry outside.

Swimming is a form of recreation and a sport, but it is also a crucial life skill. Being able to swim means increased survival odds for everyone. In the US, there are huge racial disparities in swimming instruction. The rates of accidental deaths due to drowning are on average at least 3 times higher for black children than for white children.

Reading this section reminded me of just important it is to create, as a community, public spaces and programs for everyone to have access to swimming instruction and swimming recreation. I believe that it advances justice, health, civic identity, and community building.

Next is Diane:

This section triggered so many memories of people I have gotten to know through swimming. And though it was beautifully crafted, I wished there had been more stories of community. Just one chapter was not enough for me.

For example, the history of English swimming barely touches on the huge community there, swimming at Lidos, in many rivers and lakes, or in the sea – all year round. They were my inspiration for open water and cold water swimming. One of those swimmers even met up with me at a public pool in London when I was there on business.

The whole idea of access to swimming really interests me too: there’s my friend from Victoria who works leads open water swimming with a group of adults with Downs Syndrome; my local pool was built in 1924 in what was then a slum area, complete with segregated entrances, just like the pools described in the book; the LGBTQ-friendly swim club I hang out with; my years of working with women from very conservative societies and their limited access to a pool (or any sports or even education). And just last year I learned about Mamie Nell Ford – a photo of her at a “swim in” in St Augustine Florida, as the the owner of the segregated hotel pool poured acid into the water, helped spur the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I would happily have read far more about this topic.

Most of all, this chapter filled me with love for Jay and his gift for teaching and bringing people together. The anecdote about buying goggles and caps for students really struck a chord. The Canadian Embassy in Kabul has a pool too, though nothing like where Jay’s multinational swim team trained in Baghdad. It is a tiny above-ground pool, and the last time I was there, I was deeply grateful for the tether a former employee had left behind for other swimmers, because it allowed me to work out for an hour in a space not much bigger than a hot tub. It was an oasis of peace in a place where I was always on alert.

And here’s Sam:

I often think about access to swimming. My mother doesn’t swim. She didn’t learn as a child, then almost drowned going over waterfalls, and hasn’t been in the water much since. She made sure I did learn to swim. It was important given that me and my siblings were raised on the east coast of Canada, near the ocean, and holidays were often spent near lakes or ocean beaches. The real success story was the next generation. My daughter Mallory is an excellent swimmer, a diver, and a lifeguard.

I wanted more from the chapter on race and access to swimming. Each year I feel like I’m struck anew by racial disparities in drowning deaths. Here in Ontario a black teenager recently drowned in a school canoe trip and teachers claimed not to know the student couldn’t swim even though it clearly said that on his permission form for the trip. I also wanted to hear more about swimming communities and what we can do to make those communities more inclusive. Short review: glad this section was here, wish it were longer. It seems to me that swimming, access and inclusion is a topic worth a whole book!

Readers, have you been reading the book? We’d love to hear what you think.

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