Book Club · fitness · swimming

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

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.

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

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

Two weeks ago, the topic shifted to Well-Being.

Last week, we talked about the section on Community.

This week, we’re turning to Competition. Here’s what we have to say.

First up, Kim:

I HATE RACES. They make me incredibly anxious. I visit the bathroom A LOT in the half hour before go time. This is probably why I never really raced my bike seriously; I’ve done some sportif races (Gran Fondos) but not lately, and I don’t miss them. So I’m incredibly glad that I am not a super-strong swimmer and would never be competitive even at Master’s level; it takes all the pressure off! That said, the idea of competition appeals a lot to me, and I found this section of Tsui’s book delightful. She ranges from stories of Olympians historical and contemporary to stories of her and her son competing in local clubs – something that brings Tsui back to her high school competitive swimmer self, and in that looking back she honours the strong middle aged woman she is. Even though I have no desire to do what she’s doing, I love and appreciate the story she tells here and felt joy in reading of her achievement.

The most satisfying part of this section for me is the end, though, when she explores the remarkable (and to me entirely unknown!) tradition of Nihon Eiho, aka JAPANESE SAMURAI SWIMMING. (I encourage you to google and watch some of the incredible videos out there – it’s hard to picture without images.) It’s a centuries-old tradition, and it values skill + stillness. In fact, at its best, Nihon Eiho is the opposite of a race: it challenges practitioners to take their time, and to develop the range of capacities required to, for example, tread water in full armour while keeping the upper body as still as possible. As much as traveling Tsui’s own trajectory back to swimming competition delighted me in this section, it’s this tradition – the framing of competition as a slowing down and a connecting with flow-as-stillness – that really resonates for me and will stay with me.

Here’s Diane:

I didn’t even know that swim clubs existed until I was in high school, because I lived in rural communities with no indoor pools. My first dreams of competition came with the 1976 Olympics and the outstanding performances of Kornelia Ender, who won four gold medals (the steroid scandals that followed were sparked, in part by her dominance in the pool). I spent the next few years in every pool I could get to, working on my backstroke and dreaming of being an Olympian. But I never entered a competition or even joined a club for decades, so I didn’t think I would relate to this section at all.

Indeed, when Tsui wrote about her anxiety and the stress of competition, my reaction was “why do it if you aren’t having fun?” But when she turned to a Master’s competition, I was right back into the book. I entered the Canadian nationals about a decade ago because it happened to be in my home city and some friends were doing it. I participated as part of their club, did a few extra practices, literally learned how to do a back stroke start the day of the competition, and had a blast. I also swam harder than I recall ever doing before. What I remember most (aside from my parents spending the day poolside to cheer on my 50 year-old self) was watching the swimmers in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Swimming is an endurance sport. If I swim long enough, I might eventually win a medal.

Like Kim, l loved the part about Japanese Samurai swimming: the Zen of swimming, aiming for a smooth stroke with minimal visible effort. That really describes my swimming (or at least my ambitions). I block out everything and just focus on the space a few inches ahead of my face, often slowing down because I am enjoying the grace and relaxation so much I forget to push forward.

Here’s Bettina:

This section resonated with me mostly through my own, very limited, experience with competitive swimming. I’ve swum a few competitions, though not very recently, and I was never much of a fan: the nerves, and also I’m not fast enough to win much of anything. But I know the feelings she describes when she talks about competitive swimming. And I love watching swimming competitions and admiring the athletes’ efficient and unbelievably fast strokes. I also enjoyed Bonnie Tsui’s telling of how US women’s competitive swimming evolved and the badass women who fought to be taken seriously.

And finally, in the section on Japanese Samurai swimming (I had no idea this existed), I was fascinated by the different concept of competition: “swimming as self-improvement”, as Bonnie Tsui calls it. “There is a Zen practice to be found here, in the motions, in the pool, in the Karate Kid ‘wax-on, wax-off’ repetition until it’s right”, she writes. This, for me, is true also of regular swimming as you work on improving your technique, on achieving an even and ever more efficient stroke. Which nicely leads us over into the next section of the book, “Flow” – to be discussed next week!

And now, me (Catherine):

Like Kim and Bettina, I’ve never been a fan of racing competitions where you have to be fast. This is because speed is not one of my athletic talents. But it’s fascinating to watch speedy athletes. I’m in awe of them, and even unconsciously move my body along with them when I’m spectating.

It was illuminating to read about Gertrude Ederley, a championship swimmer for all conditions and distances. She was clearly the Serena Williams of her time, one of the great athletes of that time (alongside Babe Ruth, notes Tsui), and one of the great swimmers of all time.

Tsui is in awe of these titans of swimming– Ederle, Dara Torres, Katy Ledecky, and Michael Phelps, among others– but is clear to note the pressures, hardships and intensity involved in world-class competitive swimming. They are not gods; they are gifted athletes who pay a big price to do what they do.

Like the other commenters, I enjoyed the Samurai swimming section. Here’s a youtube video if you’d like a peek. But my favorite section was about Tsui and her son’s parallel swim practices with their respective teams. Like mother, like son. We can love something, fear it, know it well, and discover new dimensions to it every time. That’s the big win I see here.

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

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