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.

fitness · swimming

Answers to summer water sports questions you may have never thought of

I love summer. I love swimming in summer. I love lakes, ocean, streams, and pools.

I also love water– fresh, salty, calm, wavy, big, small, still, and fizzy.

Which got me to thinking: are there are fizzy-water sports around?

Person’s feet in water with lots of bubbles. As close as I could come to swimming in fizzy water.

Of course not. That’s just silly, Catherine.

But maybe not. I found a bunch of questions on Quora about swimming pool activities that I thought it was time to share with readers, just in case. So here we go…

Q1. What would happen if you tried to swim in a swimming pool filled entirely with carbonated water?

  • A1-1. you’d die because of all the carbon dioxide on the surface of the water.
  • A1-2: you’d float on the principle that all those little bubbles would hold you up.
  • A1-3: you’d sink/drown, because gases in water reduce its density.

Take-home message: the jury’s out on that one.

Q2: What would happen if you drank a lot of swimming pool water?

  • A2-1: if you swallowed too much, you might drown.
  • A2-2: If the pool has chlorine, it might be fine (chlorine kills bacteria), or it might make your stomach upset (as chlorine kills gut bacteria too).
  • A2-3: don’t drink pool water. Or lake water, or ocean water, etc.

Take-home message: just don’t drink pool water. It’s icky.

Q3: What would happen if you jumped in a pool filled with peanut butter:

  • A3-1: it depends on what kind. Ones with fewer additives will have a layer of oil on top, although it would be shallow. So you could hang out in the oil layer.
  • A3-2: you’d be limited as to swim strokes; breast stroke recommended.

Take-home message: unless you’re 7, I can’t believe you’re asking me this.

Q4: what would happen if I swam in a swimming pool during a lightning storm?

  • A4-1: you’d probably die.
  • A4-2: even if you didn’t die, you’d become known as the most foolhardy person ever.
  • A4-3: no one would ever invite to their pool again.


Q5: has anyone actually died from being electrocuted in a swimming pool during a thunder storm?

A5: Uh, no. I found this thorough and lighthearted investigative journalism piece about lightning strike risk at outdoor swimming pools. No one could cite evidence or studies or surveys or anything. But they stood firm on the dictum: no swimming outside during a thunder storm. However, swimming indoors seems fine.

Take-home message: there’s an undocumented rule, issued from the pool-safety cabal about not being in outdoor pools during thunderstorms. Still, better safe than sorry.

Dear Readers– do you have any questions or worries about popular summer pool myths? Put them in the comments, and I’ll get to work on them, as soon as I’ve toweled dry.

covid19 · fitness · Guest Post · swimming

Part 2: Covid-19 and the Tyranny of the Pool (Guest Post)

Second excerpt from my forthcoming book Growing Old, Going Cold: The Psychrolute Chronicles, about my Life as an (aging) cold-water swimmer by Kathleen McDonnell

I remember standing in line with my fifth-grade classmates as we waited to get our polio shots. I knew that throughout history there had been terrible epidemics, like the Black Death, where people dropped dead in the streets (which was actually more the case with cholera than the Plague). Like most people who grew up in the twentieth century, that was pretty much the extent of my acquaintance with serious contagious disease. 

So when the Covid-19 pandemic and the worldwide lockdown hit in early 2020, I wasn’t terribly phased by it, at least on a personal level. Shelter-in-place? No problem. My spouse and I already worked from home. In fact, a lot of the writing of this book was done during that time. Social distancing? No problem there, either. On this part of Toronto Island the houses are close together – sometimes a bit too close together –so we don’t feel isolated. Like everyone else, we stayed separate from our daughters and grandchild, but FaceTime and outdoors visits made up for that. Get outside once a day for exercise? Let’s see, I live in a village on the edge of a nature park, on an Island surrounded by water. I venture outside, walk for less than five minutes and I’m in the water. Even in the time of Covid Isolation, there couldn’t be a better situation for a swimmer. As time went on, though, I realized just how extraordinary my situation was, how truly fortunate I was. 

I began to see posts by fellow open-water swimmers going through withdrawal, lamenting that they couldn’t get to the water since parks and beaches everywhere were closed. It was just the time of the season when cold-water swim groups were gearing up, and now they were blocked. In the UK the guidelines were rigidly enforced in some areas, with patrolling bobbies chasing people out of the water. One determined outdoor swimmer stopped because she couldn’t stand the stares, the sense that onlookers were thinking, “Why should you get to swim, when I can’t?” A couple of months into the pandemic, swim memoirist Bonnie Tsui published an article in the New York Times entitled  “What I Miss Most Is Swimming” “There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now,” she writes, “in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most.”

I was always disdainful of those single-lane lap pools, and the so-called “Endless pool,” a jet resistance you swim against, basically going nowhere – endlessly! But with the shutdown of conventional pools, swimmers were buying them or, more commonly, wishing they could afford to. Meanwhile, the open-water community in the UK refused to take the situation lying down. I saw a flurry of posts on online sites about blow-up backyard pools. Yes, folks who proudly describe themselves as “wild swimmers” were ordering blue plastic inflatable pools on Amazon, setting them up in their backyards, tethering themselves to a stationery object and proceeding to swim in place. Swimmers who hate chlorinated pools were dumping chorine into their backyard pools so they wouldn’t become germ infested. They patted themselves on the back for making do with cheery British pluck. And as pitiful as it all looked to me, I could totally understand. It’s an addiction, this need to be in water. I even felt a bit guilty. They had these postage-stamp-size pools, and I had a Great Lake.

After the full-on lockdown began to ease up in early summer, outdoor pools in Toronto began to re-open, but with restrictions. The city imposed strict limits on the number of people in the pool at any one time, and each swimmer’s time was limited to 45 minutes. Between shifts the pools were cleared and surfaces sterilized. People found they had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, and often didn’t even manage to get into the water. Lanes had to be booked ahead of time. Lockers were off-limits. Time in the change rooms was minimized: Swimmers were encouraged to wear their suits to the pool and home again. Once they managed to get into the facility, some users even found themselves singing the praises of the restrictions. “Forty people is nothing. You feel like you have the place to yourself. Maintaining distance is a breeze.” Ian Brown wrote in the Globe and Mail. Still, in the middle of a summer heat wave, Toronto pools were operating at a quarter of their capacity, in a city that sits beside an enormous freshwater lake.

Now, I don’t believe that the big concrete-and-chlorine tubs are going to disappear, nor do I think they should. But I look forward to a day when they’re no longer the default option for getting into the water. Covid-19 has changed the swimming universe. As I write this, indoor pools in Toronto are once again declared off-limits. And the various Open-Water and Wild Swimming sites I follow on Facebook show a huge jump in interest.

I found evidence of this in my own back yard. A neighbor of mine who is a dedicated pool swimmer told me the lake was too cold for her, even in the summer. But the lockdown forced her hand, and this past summer she broke down and bought a neoprene top. Off Ward’s Island Beach, there’s a line of buoys to keep the boats out of the swimming area.  We reckoned they were a little over 50 meters apart. From then on, most days I’d see her doing her daily 1500 meters between the buoys. (Okay, so it is possible to swim lengths in a lake.)

The Wild Swimming trend may have begun as a necessary adjustment to pandemic conditions, but it’s taking hold worldwide, as more and more swimmers go for regular dips in open-air pools, lakes and rivers. At one point, demand in the UK was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of wild swimming spots, in an attempt to prevent overcrowding. Even colder weather, more challenging water temperatures and the discomfort of wriggling into dry clothing in public is failing to deter many of the converts. The National Open Water Coaching Association (Nowca), which operates bookings for 30 open-water venues in England and Scotland, said the number of swimmers in October was up fourfold or 323% year on year, after a 60% rise in swimmers over the summer. The surge in outdoor swimming has been a boon for watersports suppliers. Sales of swimsuits are down because of the closure of indoor pools, but cold-water swimming gear – wetsuits, dry robes, neoprene swimcaps – is flying off the shelves.

Covid-19 has introduced countless water-lovers to the joys of open water, and a lot of them will never go back. As one convert wrote on an Open-Water Swimming site: “Ya gotta love not having to book lanes at the pool.”

Kathleen McDonnell

Kathleen McDonnell is the author of nine books and more than a dozen plays, which have had award-winning productions in Canada and the United States. She’s also been a journalist and CBC radio commentator, and does a fair bit of teaching and public speaking. As befits a passionate swimmer, McDonnell lives on an island; Toronto Island, a unique, vibrant, mostly car-free community a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto where she and her life partner raised their two daughters. Check out her website:

covid19 · fitness · Guest Post · swimming

Part 1: Covid-19 and the Tyranny of the Pool (Guest post)

by Kathleen McDonnell

An excerpt from my forthcoming book Growing Old, Going Cold: The Psychrolute Chronicles, about my Life as an (aging) cold-water swimmer.

It’s not that I have anything against pools. I’ve swum in plenty of them. They’ll do in a pinch. For competitive swimmers they make perfect sense – separated lanes, straight lines on the bottom, water sanitized to kill bacteria and other undesirable critters – everything is controlled, predictable. And there’s the rub. That’s precisely what those of us who prefer to swim in open, natural, “wild” water are trying to get away from. But in the modern world, pools have become the default option, and the pool mentality intrudes where it doesn’t belong.

Some years back I found myself back in Chicago in the height of summer. It had been a long time since I’d been in my hometown during swimming season, and I was excited at the chance to immerse myself in the waters of Lake Michigan once again. This would be a pilgrimage to Touhy Beach, the very source of my swimming passion. The day was calm, the water warm, and I headed in, anticipating a nice long swim. A Big Swim: A round-trip to a beach a half-mile to the south.

There was a lifeguard in a rowboat a little ways out from shore. I nodded to him as I passed the boat, on my way into the deeper water where I could commence my big swim. I dove in and my stroke quickly settled into a nice, steady rhythm. Until I got near the first of the short wooden piers and saw the lifeguard boat in front of me, blocking my progress. I tried to swim around the boat, but he rowed in front of me again. I stopped swimming and faced him, standing in water that was no more than shoulder-deep.

    “Something wrong?”

    “You’re not allowed to swim lengths here, Ma’am.”

    “Lengths? What do you mean, lengths?”

    He just shook his head at my question.

    “Sorry, Ma’am. Swimming lengths isn’t allowed here.”

    “You mean, I can’t keep swimming in this direction?”

    “That’s right, Ma’am. You have to stay in this area.”

    “Why? It’s not very deep here. I’m a good swimmer.

    “We have to keep an eye on everyone in the water, Ma’am. You’re not allowed to swim lengths here.”

    Again with the lengths! Not only was I not permitted beyond the pier, it appeared I was only allowed to bob up and down in this narrowly-defined area. I’ve been “ma’amed” before by lifeguards at my home beach in Toronto and I usually try to keep my cool. But it was all I could do to keep from yelling at him. “This isn’t a pool, it’s a lake – a BIG lake and I’m going to swim in it!”

    Was I asking for trouble? Would he call the other lifeguards to pull me out of the water? I acquiesced and swam a few strokes back the way I’d come, then swam a few strokes the opposite way, curious to see if this short back-and-forth distance fit his definition of “lengths.” Of course, to show me who was boss, he inched the boat as close as he could without the oar hitting me. We went on like this for several minutes, a few strokes, going a bit farther each time, then turning back the other way, the lifeguard maneuvering the boat so that it was never more than 2 or 3 feet away from me.

    Finally I’d had enough. I’d come to the motherlode, the original source of my Great Lakes swimming passion, and all I’d managed to do was get a bit wet. And be treated to a demonstration of how the act of swimming had become distorted, synonomous with “lengths” of a chlorine-filled concrete hole-in-the-ground. It’s yet another way humans turn away from the natural world, and foolishly insist that the experience of being in water can be replaced or – worse – improved upon. 

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when swimming in natural bodies of water was considered completely normal.

Moats, Swimming Holes and Pools

You might think pools are a modern invention, but in fact they go back several millennia. As far as historians know, the Great Bath at the site of Mohenjo-Daro in modern-day Pakistan was the first human-created pool, dug during the 3rd millennium BC. This brick-lined pool was about 39 by 23 feet and was likely used for religious ceremonies. The structure is still there, and has been designated a South Asian World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Both ancient Greece and Rome had extensive public baths that were central to community life as meeting places for socializing and relaxing. Later the Romans built artificial pools in gymnasiums that were used for nautical and military exercises. Roman emperors also had their own private pools in which fish were also kept, hence one of the Latin words for a pool was piscina.

These early pools were used as healing baths for various conditions, rather than for swimming, which took place in natural bodies of water. The Romans built baths in other parts of the empire too, including the one that gave its name to the city of Bath, England circa 70 AD. The original Roman Bath was a renowned healing spa and swimming locale until well into the twentieth century, when a deadly pathogen was discovered in the water. The historic structure is now for tourist viewing only, replaced for swimming with more modern facilities. It’s one example of what Roger Deakin discovered on his epic swim across Britain, lamenting the abandonment and decay of many traditional bathing sites. Deakin’s book Waterlog traces the history of swimming in Britain and its evolution from natural swimming holes to contained, human-made structures. Deakin started his journey from a spring-fed moat on his own property in Suffolk. Typically he would swim from place to place, then walk back to retrieve his clothes and gear at the starting point, basically the opposite of doing “lengths” (So there, Touhy lifeguard!) 

The early twentieth century cemented the transition to enclosed swimming structures, and dozens of open-air lidos were built across Britain. For the most part these lidos are much bigger than modern pools, like the massive art deco Jubilee Lido in Cornwall, and they typically designated separate areas or times for men and women to swim. Mixed bathing only became common from the mid-twentieth century. By tradition, many lidos were kept open right through the winter, and were situated by the seaside to capture seawater in the enclosure. There’s an example of this practice in my hometown of Toronto.  Built in 1922, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavillion is almost twice the length of Olympic size pool and has room for 2,000 bathers. Now known as the Gus Ryder Pool, this concrete behemoth filled with several tons of chlorinated water sits right next to a Lake Ontario beach – an almost perverse turning away from its own environment. As Roger Deakin said of pools, they are “simulations of nature with the one essential ingredient – wildness – carefully filtered out.” 

With the worldwide growth in pools’ popularity came the need for better sanitation measures. Originally they employed archaic filtration systems that required the filters, and the water itself, to be changed frequently. By the time of the polio scare in the late 1930s and 1940s, a panic arose over the public’s fears that children could be exposed to the poliovirus in community swimming pools. In 1946, however, a study showed that chlorine was one of the few known chemicals that could kill the polio virus. As the problem of polio transmission receded, swimming pools regained popularity as a fun and exciting summer venue for families. Moreover, chlorine, as a polio disinfectant, became the near-universal method of pool sanitation, and by the early sixties, strict regulations on chlorine in pools were in place. And it will only get stricter with the rise of a new virus.

Hello, Covid-19!

Kathleen McDonnell is the author of nine books and more than a dozen plays, which have had award-winning productions in Canada and the United States. She’s also been a journalist and CBC radio commentator, and does a fair bit of teaching and public speaking. As befits a passionate swimmer, McDonnell lives on an island; Toronto Island, a unique, vibrant, mostly car-free community a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto where she and her life partner raised their two daughters. Check out her website:

Keep an eye out for Part Two, on May 7th, here at Fit is a Feminist Issue.

fitness · link round up · swimming · winter

Fit is a Feminist Issue, Friday Link Round Up #98: Wild Swimming Videos

As I noted on Monday we’re on a bit of cold weather/outdoors swimming kick around the blog. Here’s some of the videos I’ve found. If you have any that you recommend, that I’ve missed please let us know in the comments!

Alpkit are delighted to present ‘Chasing the Sublime’, a mesmeric glimpse at the physicality of long distance cold water swimming by award winning director Amanda Bluglass (2019)
A mini-documentary showing the link between mental health and sea swimming. Katie swims off the rocks of Penzance, UK nearly everyday of the year. Open water swimming has helped her overcome some of the struggles that life all too often throws our way. The hope is that her story may help others who are faced with similar challenges. (2017)
“[Wild swimming] connects you to a part of yourself that you don’t normally have access to…” When chaotic city life had taken its toll, we turned to nature. Join us as we escape the traps of urban life and immerse ourselves in the timeless escape of wild swimming… Watch Swim Wild (in partnership with General Tire) and find out more about this transformative journey here: (2018)
Seven tips and advice to help you start wild open water swimming. Check the Cold Water Wild Swimming video here:​ (2020)
fitness · swimming · winter

Fit is a Feminist Issue, Friday Link Round Up #99: Wild Swimming Resources

As I noted on Monday we’re on a bit of cold weather/outdoors swimming kick around the blog. Here’s some of the resources I’ve found. If you have any that you recommend, that I’ve missed please let us know in the comments!

Porkkalanniemi, Kirkkonummi, Finland
Woman stretching on a frozen sea in a swimsuit. Photo by Mika on Unsplash

Wild Big Swim: “One of my greatest passions is swimming in cold and ice water, there’s really nothing quite like it! I’ve put together a series of articles based on my personal experiences, to share what I’ve learned over the years with others – use this information responsibly, and at your own risk. Don’t forget to seek the advice of your doctor if you’re thinking of taking up chilly swimming, to be sure it’s right for you!”

Swimming in Cold Water Has Done Wonders for My Stress: “There’s a scientific rationale for why some people find swimming in the freezing cold to be so invigorating.”

The health benefits and risks of cold water swimming: “Cold water swimming may seem like an odd pastime to the uninitiated. But while you might question the sanity of those who decide to take an open-water dip in the depths of winter, research has shown there are actually a host of health benefits – both mental and physical – to taking the plunge. The joys of such a pursuit are well noted – both anecdotally and scientifically – but there are of course risks. Here, we reveal the reasons why you should dip your toes (and more!) into cold water this winter, and explain how to do so safely.”

Swimming in Very Cold Water Keeps Me Sane: “I’m standing with two friends in the 39-degree air on the edge of a lake in northeastern California in just our bathing suits. A lone fisherman in several layers of outerwear stares, drinks from a bottle of Racer Ale and says, “Tell me you ladies aren’t going in that water.” We go in that water. It’s probably 56 degrees. It’s not the coldest water in the world currently being swum, not “My Octopus Teacher” cold — that guy swims in 48-degree water all the time, but hey, he’s in love with an octopus. What do you expect?”

The subversive joy of cold water swimming: “Britons are skipping the heated pool and rediscovering the pleasures of lakes, rivers, and seas—even in winter.”

Women cold water swimming in Gower to help menopause: “A group of cold water swimmers have said that plunging into sea temperatures as cold as 6C is helping with the effects of the menopause. Some also reported improvements in their mental health.”

fitness · swimming

Cold water swimming fever: Catherine’s caught it

It seems like everyone is talking about or doing cold water swimming. Of course, it’s been around for a long time (pretend I’ve inserted links here to historical polar bear swims in many places and times and locations). Sam just posted this morning about the siren call of the cold water that she’s hearing. Diane’s actually doing it, as well as guest blogger Lynette.

Once our crack administrative team at Fit is a Feminist Issue Headquarters has fixed on dates for our upcoming FIFI book club on Why We Swim, by Bonnie Tsui, I’ll be posting more information. We would love it if you wanted to join us in reading the book, and even posting some of your comments and sharing your experiences of swimming (in water of any temperature).

In the meantime, here are my current plans for cold-water-swimming-according-to-me:

Last Monday, I spontaneously dipped toes, then ankles, then almost-to-knees in the coldish water of Walden Pond on a warm spring day. I can’t find into on the water temps that day, but I’m thinking low 50sF/10-11c). Some swimmers in wetsuits were out in the water. Here’s documentation of my progress:

As I said, it was a lovely day.

The shimmering water of Walden Pond on a partly sunny, warm spring day.

This week, there are several warmish days. I’m going to be following the advice in Sam’s post and doing some slow dips/immersions/something, probably accompanied by squealing. I’ll wear a bathing suit or maybe bike shorts and sports bra. There’s a nice bathroom nearby for changing into warm dry clothes. Will report back (obvs).

Wish me luck!

Readers, what are your outdoor swimming activities like right now? Are you considering dipping toes in, waiting until warmer weather, already in a routine of swimming? We’d love to hear from you.

fitness · swimming

Wild swimming? Cold water swimming? Whatever you call it, Sam is tempted to try it

Here on the blog we’re having lots of thoughts about cold water!

Catherine dipped her toes in and is thinking about more. Blog regular Diane Harper wrote about winter swimming back when she was a guest poster. Another regular guest Lynette Reid has been tempting me in with her beautiful Nova Scotia winter swimming pictures. She blogged about it here. And I’m officially on record, along with Catherine, as intrigued and tempted. See also here.

We’re also, as a group, reviewing Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui. We usually do it chapter by chapter, book club style, so readers can join in. Details to follow later this week! (And yes, in the interests of transparency, that’s an Amazon affiliate link. We don’t make much from them but they do cover the costs of an ad-free WordPress blog.)

The cover of Why We Swim

Here’s the back of the book blurb: “An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself. We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world. Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets n Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.”

What’s ‘wild swimming’? As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian notes we used to just call it ‘swimming’ or ‘outdoor swimming.’ It’s like ‘forest bathing’ which used to just be called ‘hiking in the woods.’ What’s new is an emphasis on the physical and mental health benefits. And wild swimming often involves swimming off season–not just in the hot summer months, but fall and spring, and for some of the braver souls like Diane and Lynette, wintertime too. I don’t think the term has quite taken off here in Canada like it has in the UK.

Why am I tempted at all? Here’s my two main reasons:

  • Fond childhood memories of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. On the east coast of Canada the beaches always meant cold water swimming even in July and August. Mostly kids went in while adults huddled on shore. I want to recapture some childhood feels. Biking does that. Maybe cold water swimming will too?
  • I love swimming outside but I can’t seem to get into pool swimming. I like indoor rowing (hi erg!) and outdoor rowing. I love indoor biking (hey Zwift!) and outdoor riding. But swimming? Nope. No matter how much I try it’s never taken. But I love being in the water outdoors.
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This picture always makes me laugh. It’s in PEI in August first of all. Also, my kids are frolicking in the outdoor swimming pool on family vacation. Me? I’ve become one of those adults huddled on shore, wearing Jeff’s polar fleece jacket, drinking Tim Hortons coffee, while the kids play and have fun in the water. What happened to me?

Okay how do I move from ‘feeling intrigued’ to ‘giving it a go’? I asked some of my winter swimming friends for advice. Should I wait until summer? Start now?

Albert Nerenberg, a friend from my undergrad student newspaper days, writes, “You can really start any time because the two key components are the breathing and the cold showers. You can get most of the benefits from cold immersion from those two practices. But people naturally escalate to outdoor swimming. Cold exposure doesn’t have to be long. 3-5 minutes for benefits. So anytime is good because the breath warm up can be done with even warmer water and you’re still in the process.”


Albert is an advocate of the health benefits of both cold water swimming and laughing. He combines them in this video.

Here’s the specific breathing technique Albert recommends.

Lynette’s words of wisdom? “One piece of advice people give is to acclimatize over a few years and extend the season rather than starting early. But last year I started early because who wants to hear that in April? Go in slowly (walk I don’t dive) and monitor your breathing so you start to notice when you involuntarily hold your breath or take a breath in and re-establish it before going in farther. Wind is a worse enemy than temperature.”

What about special gear? Do I need any?

“You can put neoprene gloves booties and a cap on. Or wetsuits or whatever versions of wetsuits triathletes wear which have greater mobility. Or your bathing suit. At the beginning you just get in and out. Dip. Swim later. Never push yourself with goals and expectations in cold water swimming. Get warm after,” says Lynette.

Also, research safety tips before you go. Here’s cold water tips from Outdoor Swimmer magazine and more tips from the outdoor swimming society.

Here’s Lynette, photos from her earlier post.

Diane also recommended safety first. (We’re like that here on the blog!)

She writes, “I would start with Nadine’s website, which has lots of info based on years of training for cold swimming. My advice would be to listen to your body and don’t ever push beyond your comfort zone. Everyone is different and some very experienced long-distance open water swimmers can’t get in, while other people find it relatively easy. Some use wetsuits, others don’t (I don’t because I worry about struggling to change out of a wetsuit when I’m cold). Personally, I found that just extending my season in the fall was the best way to do it. But when I was swimming today, I saw a man, a kid and a dog all in the water, so now is also manageable.”

The colder it is, the more you need to be concerned about safety.

“In cold weather, wind and precipitation can be brutal, both physically and psychologically. The usual water safety rules apply more than ever – swim with buddies, have a plan, know your swim area, wear a float for visibility, especially if there are boats or windsurfers in the area. Bring snacks for when you get out as you will be hungry – cake is traditional,” says Diane.

I wondered if most people actually swim in the water or if it’s more ‘get in, get out’ like the polar bear dip.

Diane says she actually swims.

“I actually swim, but there is usually some time spent getting acclimatized. Sometimes it’s all head’s up breaststroke because putting my face in is too hard. Today it was about 350 m I think, and I was in for a little over 20 minutes. I would have stayed in longer but my swimming buddy is new to it and she was starting to get cold. The colder it is, the harder it is, obviously. I have trained for an ice mile (bathing suit and one cap, not gloves or socks, in water under 5C). I will never do one because I’m just not fast enough to complete that distance in under about 40 minutes, which is extreme. But a day like today, with water at or above 10C, 45 minutes is easy now.”

Here’s Diane and her friend Nadine making the cold water look as welcoming as a hot tub.

What’s next? Well, I promise to give swimming outside this spring, earlier than usual, a go. And I’ll report back. If Catherine lived closer–damn you geography and borders–I’d give her a call and we’d go swimming together.

I also want to write about British swimmer Kate Steele who has done not one, not two, but EIGHT ice miles! What’s an ice mile? “Find a body of water that is below 5C, and swim one mile under supervision wearing only your swimming costume, a pair of goggles and one silicone swimming hat.”

And stay tuned for our group book review of Why We Swim.

fitness · swimming

Catherine dips her toes in

Saturday was one of those glorious New England spring days– sunny, warm (70F/21C) and beckoning. Everyone heard that call, as I saw folks out on foot, on bikes, in kayaks– anywhere under blue sky.

My friend Norah and I headed to one of our favorite places, Walden Pond in Concord, MA. Yes, that Walden Pond. The one where Thoreau hung out (even though he regularly walked back to town to do his laundry and get a free meal from friends).

Postcard image of Walden Pond in spring. It wasn't that green yesterday, but it will be soon.
Postcard image of Walden Pond in spring. It wasn’t quite that green yesterday, but will be soon.

I had gone to Walden that Monday, too. It was a Boston holiday– Patriots’ Day— so I went in the early afternoon. It was warmish (64/18) and a little overcast. The pond and the trees and the beach all looked more brown than green still; spring is slow to arrive here, but the turn is always sudden.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been cautious– wearing a mask all the time outside my house, curtailing my activities, engaging in social distancing, etc. One of the effects for me has been difficulty in leaving my house, even under conditions of safety, like walking or riding outside. It’s been hard. I bet many of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about.

Now I’m fulling vaccinated– thank you, J&J! One and done, with pretty mild short-term side effects. It’s been two weeks since my shot, so I can venture out (mask on still, but that’s okay) with more security.

But, like very big boats (I’m not naming names here), I don’t turn on a dime.

That boat (you know the one), stuck. Kind of like me, although I don’t have any satellite images of me hanging out in my living room.

Out by the pond on my own last Monday, I was feeling anxious–an altogether too-familiar sensation from the past 12 months. It’s brought on two very unpleasant anxiety attacks, and I still fear a return of them. Wearing a mask and trying to focus on my breathing, I made my way to the beach and spied a large rock in the distance. Claiming it as my own, I sat down and continued breathing and looking around.

I’m reading Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, (stay tuned for future FIFI book club posts on this book), and have been intrigued by the properties of cold water. She interviews people who do long-distance cold-water swimming, and also does some herself.

In that moment, sitting on that rock, looking at that brownish water, I was struck by the urge to feel some cold water on my body. Shedding my shoes and socks and rolling up my pant legs, I ventured in. It was indeed cold. And it was a strong sensation. It took over my awareness, and the anxiety receded. I became much more interested in exploring that feeling of the water, and waded out as far as I had bare skin to accommodate it.

It was wonderful.

So I did the same thing yesterday, talking Norah into joining me. She dipped her toes in, which was enough for her. Norah has been outside, walking and biking, throughout the pandemic. I’ve joined her a bit, and she’s been a great help to me. She even drove us together (we’ve both been vaccinated–yay again!) to Walden.

But on Saturday, the water was calling me, not her.

I waded in, and again it felt cold, and again it felt great.

We talked about coming back for swimming soon. Norah is no stranger to swimming in bracing water, but it’s still a bit cold for her. However, I think I may need to venture further in, and soon. It’s feeling both symbolic and practical. I’ve always loved swimming, but haven’t made much time for it in recent years. For me it’s great exercise, and the combo of the water and sky always makes me feel at one with the world.

Add to all this the feelings I’m getting of joy in sensation. Healing, even. Respite from anxiety. Can I wash that angst right out of my hair? I think I’m going to find out. Will report back.

Readers, what is calling to you these days? Anything? Everything? Are you finding new paths to the outside world? Have you been keeping to those paths throughout the pandemic? I’d love to hear from you.