Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness · menopause

Book Review: Next Level

by Stacy T. Sims with Selene Yeager. This is the follow-up book to Sims Roar, and focuses specifically on physically active women approaching or in menopause. I was interested in this book after I saw numerous women in triathlete and cycling groups singing its praises. Before I go further into the review I want to note that I found the book covertly fat-phobic and would not recommend it to anyone with disordered eating (or in recovery) or to anyone who just generally doesn’t want to be told repeatedly that maintaining or improving body composition is a key reason to remain active. I’d also add that the book discusses only women, and does not recognize that some people who menstruate/experience menopause do not identify as women.

Part One of the book offers a detailed overview of menopause. What it is, what it does within the body, and the possible impacts it may have on people experiencing perimenopause and menopause. I found chapter 3, focusing on hormones and symptoms, especially useful for breaking the whole process down into simple language and explanations.

Part Two of the book moves on to performance. It is probably useful to note here that this section is geared toward athletes. While this includes recreational athletes it does not feel as inclusive of folks who are regularly active but not “athletes.” There is no definition of the difference between those two levels of activity, but my personal sense is this book is not written for someone who spends their days chasing kids around a playground or someone who does a medium-intensity 30 minute workout a few times a week. The schedule templates and descriptions are more in line with someone who is training for an event, who works out 6-7 days per week, often with an endurance (multi-hour) session or race included. Though you would not discern it from the title “Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great, and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond” this book is not written for an inactive or low-activity person.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 focus on the specific types of activity Sims recommends: HIIT, SIT, lifting “heavy shit,” and pylometrics and jumps. She gives an overview of different high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and sprint interval training (SIT) structures (tabata, hill sprints, 20/10, 40/20, etc). Here’s where the language about “performance-boosting body composition changes” comes back up, along with Sims belief that HIIT and SIT strengthens and increases amount of energy-producing mitochondria, improves insulin sensitivity and lowers fasting blood sugar levels, triggers anti-inflammatory response when done regularly, stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) keeping gray matter healthy and improving cognition and working memory. Sims is a big believer in “lifting heavy sh*t,” citing benefits in strength building, increased metabolic rate (waking up more muscle fibers which requires a lot of energy to exist), improved posture and stability, stronger bones, better blood pressure control, maintenance of healthy body composition (defined as maintaining lean muscle, reducing fat gain), and fewer sick days (improves immunity). She also includes tips for lifting heavy sh*t, including warm-up moves and basic heavy lifts. Finally, Sims discusses information about jumps and plyometric moves, citing research that supports plyometrics being beneficial for improved muscular strength, bone health, body composition, posture, and physical performance. This chapter also includes a guide to these movements, working in phases from beginner through intermediate levels.

The next 10 chapters focus on aspects that can impact athletic performance, such as gut health and microbiome balance, diets and proper nutrition fueling, nutrition timing, hydration, sleep and recovery, stability and core strength, bone strength, exercise scheduling, and supplements. Many chapters include descriptions of athletes Sims has coached during the menopause transition, offering a description of the concerns of each athlete and the training (including each of the above elements) plan Sims developed for the athlete, and the outcome of each case.

CW: body weights discussed here — Throughout the book Sims offers examples using body weight as a guide (ex: macro calculations for a woman weighing xxx lbs.) These numbers are often quite low, as are the body weights of the athletes Sims describes in her case study sections. The average woman in the U.S. weighs 170 lbs, but the women Sims writes about or uses for sample information weigh significantly less than that. Further, there is little discussion about how to manage macros for larger athletes, which may feel daunting to the many athletes at or above the “average” range. Lastly, I would note here that Sims uses some calculations that include BMI without further discussion about the problematic development and history of the BMI (although she does note that the BMI is less useful for some athletes and that there may be more useful tests.)

The final chapter offers different templates for putting all of this information into practice, including macro targets, training plans, and symptom tracking.

Final thoughts: I found the book to be informative in many areas, and I’m glad I read it. That being said, I don’t see a lot of implementation in my future, although I plan to talk to my trainer about lifting more heavy sh*t. As someone who Sims would likely categorize as active but not an athlete I’m much more focused on functional fitness (like getting my 70 lbs dog in/out of the hatchback), but I’d gladly take some relief from perimenopause symptoms, some of which are hitting me hard. I think Sims falls down in two areas in this book, the first (fat-phobia and body weight) I’ve already covered. The second is Sims reliance on relatively small studies to strengthen her claims, which she (accurately!) says identifies a lack of research done with people who menstruate/experience menopause. Where I think Sims shines in this book is her ease in breaking down medical/scientific terminology into layperson terms, and in her encouragement to start small/slow and work up to the plans she includes here. This type of staggered implementation may help readers avoid overwhelm and injury.

Amy Smith is a professor of Media & Communication and a communication consultant who lives north of Boston. Her research interests include gender communication and community building. Amy spends her movement time riding the basement bicycle to nowhere, walking her two dogs, and waiting for it to get warm enough for outdoor swimming in New England.

Book Club · fitness · monthly check in · winter

Checking in for December and 2021 in general, looking ahead to 2022

I’ve been putting off writing this blog post and that is not a very good sign. I usually write for the blog quickly and cheerfully.

I don’t think I’ve felt as apprehensive about a new year in a very long time. I want to be hopeful and positive about better post pandemic times ahead. But I’m also frightened that they won’t be better. Even wishing people a happy new year felt sketchy. I mean, I did it. But I felt like I should knock on wood after or something.

I also know I should feel lucky for how wonderful the lives we have are in the global and historical scheme of things.

Add climate change and increasingly polarized politics, fueled by racism and misogny, to the mix of things I’m worried about and I just want to throw the blankets over my head and emerge in spring.

It’s been a very hard year. Sometimes I confess I’m tempted by this kind of message about how I feel about it but that’s not quite right either.

Bitmoji Sam putting out the trash that was 2021

I also don’t want to ignore the month and year that was. Time might be a bit blurry but it has its own significance. Someone joked on Twitter today, “Today is March 674, 2020.” And truly there are ways in which it feels like time has stood still. But I’m resisting that way of thinking partly because I watch my adult children growing and changing through these difficult times. They have a lot to teach me.

I have enjoyed an awful lot of things relevant to the blog–like very long trail rides and weekends away bike camping, canoe trips, and most recently yurt camping with my eldest child. I’ve missed people and parties and travel, but this year, unlike 2020 I at least got to spend time with my adult kids.

We looked at last year’s holiday pics and laughed. I couldn’t even remember what we did. It turns out we exchanged food and gifts in the backyard on the 24th and opened them on Zoom together the next day.

On the left, is Christmas 2020. Here we are wearing our holiday oodies (joke gift meant to keep us warm while meeting outside–they’ve actually been getting a lot of wear) in two separate bubbles, Guelph child and me on the left and the London sibling bubble on the right. On the right, Christmas 2021, is Christmas dinner, missing Susan who is taking the photo, but includes all three kids and me and my mother actually eating a meal together.

We gathered over the holidays as a fully vaccinated family and rapid tested on Christmas Eve. We know that’s not perfect but we’re a small group. We were going for multiple layers of imperfect protection, the swiss cheese model as they’ve been calling it.

Although my December posts have also often served as year end reflections, I’m not sure I have it in me this year.

I did have one good thought about winter’s very short days though. While we were yurt camping, I realized the urgency we felt about getting out and about in the daylight hours. If you’re biking in the morning and hiking in the afternoon and it’s starting to get dark just after 4 pm, that doesn’t leave a lot of time. It’s the one upside of short days, time in the light feels precious and special.

Bruce National Park Yurt Camping

I wondered about using the same approach to thinking about life during the pandemic. It’s reduced in various ways but maybe that means we focus in and enjoy what we do have. I did love bike camping this summer. I might plan for some more bike camping trips. I’ve always wanted take a cycling holiday in PEI and on the Gaspé Peninsula. Even if we don’t get to travel as much in the future, there’s an awful lot to love right here. Right? Right.

A few people in the blog community have talked about 2022 as the year of smaller pleasures.

Let’s officially make 2022 the year of tiny pleasures, says one woman to another while walking through the woods in the snow

Planning for the year ahead, will definitely include bike trips and canoe trips.

What else to report in planning for 2022?

My word of the year is integrity. I’ve been feeling the need to be grounded in my values and be less swayed by crises and the currents of popular opinion.

I’ve signed up for 30 days of Yoga with Adriene. I’ve approached it different ways in different years. Sometimes doing the class for that day whenever I’d normally do some yoga. Sometimes I’ve done the whole 30 days but spread out over many more.

I completed my 2021 distance challenge–see I did it!–and I might aim for higher next year. We’ll see.

Sam’s Strava Year in Review

I’ve signed up again for 222 workouts in 2022–but I’m going to need to work on variety. It can’t all be Zwifting and dog walks and YWA. With the gyms closed again, I’m going to need to get back to lifting and other forms of strength training. We’ve got lots of resistance bands, and a TRX, and even a kettle bell. I just need to pick them up occasionally. Come spring there might be some backyard personal training but there are months to go before then.

Not so much fitness related as mental health and overall well being related, I’ve signed up again for the Goodreads Challenge, pledging to read 25 books in 2022. You pick the number. I met my goal of 24 in 2021. My first book of 2022 is The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which I’m loving. I’m happier when I make space in my life to read fiction.

My knee still hurts, both knees now, a lot. But all non-emergency surgeries are on hold again in Ontario due to the pandemic and I am going to not think too much about knee surgery. I’m going to try to do what I can to make peace with the knees I have, more knee physio and definitely more riding.

Happy New Year all! (And knock on wood.) I’m sorry these aren’t rosier or more upbeat messages but that’s where I am. I did get to have a lovely Christmas with the kids and a fun and relaxing New Year with Sarah and friends at her family farm. Life is good even if I am not riding my bike in Florida as planned.

Jeff is enjoying the Florida Keys and you can read about his adventures here.

Escapade in Marathon, Florida.
Book Club · Book Reviews · dogs · fitness · walking

It’s Bluetoque time!

Two photos, side by side: Sam in her bluetoque, Cheddar on the walk. Text reads “Bluetoque, audiobook and after dinner dog walk.”

Christine blogged about hers first. We’re both big fans of our hats with bluetooth headphones built in. I think I even bought mine after reading her positive review because it turns out we were both struggling with the same thing–finding fully charged headphones and a hat and a dog leash, poop bags, and a dog (okay the dog part is easy). It was starting to get in the way of taking Cheddar out for a walk between meetings back when I was working from home.

Having one fewer thing to find was just what the doctor ordered. Also, between glasses and headphones and in the worst of the pandemic, masks, my ears were just too busy.

If you’ve got a 🐕 you’re out walking two or three times a day. Now luckily I’m not the only person walking Cheddar. I find with my painful knees I need something to distract me from pain while I’m out walking. Audio books do the trick.

Lately I’ve been making my way through everything Tana French has written. Some of her work I’ve read and some of it I’ve listened. Good both ways but they are excellent audio books. Currently listening to The Searcher, see image below.

Audio books have helped me increase the amount of fiction in my life. Sarah and I listen to books in the car while we drive back and forth to Prince Edward County. But mostly I listen to books while either cleaning the kitchen and/or walking Cheddar.

It’s helping me make progress with my Good Reads reading challenge even with my return to working in my office.

More bluetoque photos! Also blond dog and beautiful yellow fall leaves
Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness · interview · Rowing

Blog Interview with Tori Murden McClure (author, athlete, adventurer, and administrator!)

Tori Murden McClure is an amazing woman.

She was the first woman and the first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, which she did in 1999. She was also the first woman and first American to ski to the South Pole and the first woman to climb the Lewis Nunatak in the Antarctic. (See Wikipedia for more.)

McClure is a university president (Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky) and the author of A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean.

Here at the blog, we’re in awe. We read the book. We asked for your questions.

And then I got to interview McClure, courtesy of a blog connection. (Thanks Lauren!)

There’s way too much of me audibly agreeing with McClure in this interview. But it’s the blog’s first video interview. We’ll get better. I promise I’ll never say “right” again.

Enjoy!

Book Club · Book Reviews · Rowing

We’re interviewing Tori Murden McClure: Send us your questions!

Awhile back I posted about an amazing book I was reading A Pearl in the Storm. It’s a memoir (the subtitle is “How I found my heart in the middle of an ocean”) and an adventure story about rowing solo across the Atlantic. Lots of themes in the book about growing up as young athletic woman in a country and at a time when that wasn’t allowed or encouraged will resonate with readers.

Two updates:

The musical version of the book just opened this summer: “Tori Murden McClure was the first woman – and the first American – to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean. She succeeded in 1999 after an attempt in 1998 was foiled by a hurricane. Her vessel? A 23 foot rowboat she had built and named the “American Pearl.” The story of her accomplishment has inspired the new musical “Row” – with a book by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by singer-songwriter, Dawn Landes.”

And, drumroll please, Tori Murden McClure has agreed to a blog interview! I’ll be interviewing her at the end of September.

SEND ME YOUR QUESTIONS! I have lots of my own, but I’m also collecting questions for the author (now President of Spalding University). We connected through blog guest and fellow feminist philosopher Lauren Freeman who it turns out is a neighbour of the author. Thanks Lauren!

A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean
A Pearl in the Storm cover
Book Club · fitness · swimming

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

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’ve been reading and commenting on the various sections of the book over the past several Fridays. Today we wind up with the last section of the book in our final group post.

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

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

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

Two weeks ago, we talked about the section on Community.

Last week, we turned to Competition.

And now here we are, at the last section: Flow.

First up, Kim:

As we finish reflecting on Tsui’s book, I’ve been watching the city staffers tasked with sprucing up my local outdoor swimming pool. Just 250 metres from my house, it’s a gem: it’s the “beach” for all the older folks on fixed incomes who live in the supported housing building over the road, play-pad central for neighbourhood kids of all stripes, and the place I long to be every single time I pass it on a dog walk when the warm months are here and the sun is glinting off the mirror-glazed blue surface. Oh how I cannot wait the 11 days until it’s open!

“Flow” refers to being so in the zone you are In-The-Moment 2.0 – a state I’ve never experienced. I think of it like deep meditation, like the perfect Savasana, a state of intense being that borders on the dissolution of self with task, with state of play. Maybe I’m overthinking what flow feels like, but I know I’ve never experienced what Tsui talks about here – and yet, at the same time, there is no place in the world that makes me feel more fully alive than the swimming pool. And I’m not even talking about swimming; I’m most alive at the end of a swim, with the endorphins surging, when I float, weightless, bobbing and stretching and revelling in the touch of my skin to the water, and, in outdoor pools, in the unobstructed view of the wide open sky.

I confess Flow was not my favourite section of Tsui’s book, and I’m not really referencing its details here because, to be totally honest, I finished reading it a week ago and (unlike every other section) almost none of it has stuck in my memory. What will stay with me from Why We Swim, though, are individual stories: the human seal; Kim the unbreakable (who returns in Flow, FYI, and that is a wonderful bit of the section); the samurais. Like others I wanted more sometimes – more critical engagement with the racism embedded in swim access; a perhaps more potent ending – but there is no question that Tsui helped me connect with my deep love of the water, and to think about it in ways that I hadn’t been prompted to do before. I’m grateful to have read this book and excited to pass it on to others!

Next up is Bettina:

Like Kim, I finished reading this section a while ago. And also like Kim, I don’t think I’ve ever really been “in the flow” except maybe when writing, but swimming would still be the closest I have come. When I’m in the pool, the outside world does sort of retreat into the background as I focus on my strokes and breath.

Likewise, I don’t think I’ve ever been “in the zone”, where physical performance is absolutely optimal. But again, I’ve never felt as physically amazing and strong as I have during some swimming sessions.

What I think I have experienced is “blue mind”, “a ‘soft fascination’ to let our focused attention rest and the default-mode network to kick in”. As I think I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve definitely had some of my best ideas and found solutions for some vexing problems in the pool.

“Flow” is home to the sentences that most struck a chord with me in the entire book: “Submersion creates internal quiet, too. […] We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We slip from thought to thought, and then there’s a momentary nothingness.” I have definitely felt that. And “Even in grief […] I have marked time by water. […] I will say that swimming, in all of its permutations – in a pool, in a lake, paddling a surfboard out to sea – has always helped me come out on the other side of a difficult time.

“Despite all these truths, overall “Why We Swim” fell just a little bit flat for me. I can’t put my finger on why. I have to say that I felt the same with other “swimming” books before, such as “Turning”, by Jessica J. Lee. I think in my case it might be a problem of expecting too much? I get so excited about books about swimming that they have a high (impossible?) standard to live up to. Even so, I enjoyed “Why We Swim” and would recommend it to other water enthusiasts.

Next up is Diane:

There were bits and pieces about this section I really liked, but overall I found it disjointed. I did like the bit about Lake George and the Tsui’s extended family there (it’s a place I only heard about this year. It is a famous open water swim spot, apparently, and will be doing its annual race as a virtual event – I won’t join officially, but I will track my distance for the race period). However, the poetry and problem-solving sections didn’t resonate at all. I am usually too busy working on my strokes or enjoying the sensations of being in the water to have big ideas or solve problems. Non-fiction of this type is not my preferred reading, but several swimmy friends liked it. Overall, I’m not sorry I read it, but it isn’t something I will read again.

Here’s Sam:

My own experiences are pretty far from Tsui’s when it comes to ‘flow.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been a flow state while actively swimming. It’s not that I am worried about drowning. I can swim some pretty long distances stopping to float for a bit when I get tired but if I am swimming I have to coordinate my breathing and that gets in the way of anything like ‘flow.’ I’ve always wanted that from swimming but it’s eluded me even when I’m swimming regularly. That said, I do have a happy relaxed feeling in the water but it’s not flow and I associate it with floating, not swimming.

Like everyone else I loved Tsui’s story of swimming across Lake George. It reminded me of my own lake swimming as a child. In a book that flitted about themes quite a bit I liked coming home to Tsui’s own swimming story.

And last up is me, Catherine:

I agree with the other reviewers that the last section didn’t quite live up to our expectations. However, writing about the experience of flow is like trying to describe something ineffable. What this section did for me is encourage me to go seek out my own ineffable water experiences. I’m a competent swimmer and I love the water. I’ve never competed, other than two triathlons that felt like swimming in a giant washing machine. I don’t think there’s any flow to be had there– more like agitate and then spin…

I do, however, profoundly relate to the idea that being immersed in water can create shifts in our perception of time. For me, it’s shifts in all spatial things. My body feels freer, less gravity-bound. My shape feels sleek, even hydrodynamic. I’m a seal, flipping around, diving under, flapping in greeting at my friends, floating on my back, comfortably held.

One of my favorite spots is the middle of Walden Pond. Whenever I go, I swim out to the center and hang out, floating on my back, looking at the blue or gray sky and the formations of clouds. Walden is a very popular spot in the summer, but the water muffles the voices. Everything and everyone recedes. This isn’t the flow you experience through movement (I have felt that on the bike many times), but it is a sort of blue-mind sort experience.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves water, or even wants to know more about loving water.

Let us know if you’re reading the book, or read it already. We’d love to hear from you.

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.

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.

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.

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.