“Why We Swim” written by Bonnie Tsui


A Book Review by Ralph Mohr

In Iceland everyone swims.  It is a government requirement.  Bonnie Tsui in her book, Why We Swim, starts with the story of Guthlaugur Frithorsson, an Icelandic fisherman, who, when his fishing boat capsized and sank, swam three and a half miles to shore in 41°F water.

It helped that Frithorsson was shaped like a seal with 14 millimeters of fat.  He was also 22 and stubborn.  He did not want to die in the frigid water like his four shipmates.

So our first reason to swim is survival.  We all most likely had swim lessons as a child, or we lived by water: lake or river.  My first pool, for instance, was Lake Atsion in the pine barrens of New Jersey when I was two years old.  In a photo my swimming companions are two ducks.

It is possible that swimming prolongs longevity, the other side to survival.  Swimming helps with high blood pressure and arthritis, so says Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas.  He also said, “Over the last four or five years a funky thing happened — we realized that the effects of swimming actually surpassed the magnitude of the effects of walking.  Much of Tsui’s book is about the group, mostly men, who swim in the San Francisco Bay every day of the year near the Muni pier.  As the swimmers leave the Dolphin Club, they can see a quotation from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” on the wall: “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.”

Swimming is also about challenges.  Tsui writes about swimming from Alcatraz to The City, and about Lynn Cox — perhaps the greatest cold water swimmer ever.  Cox, too, is built like a seal.  It helped Cox in both the Antarctic and Bering Sea waters.

Another swim hero for Tsui is Kim Chambers, who severely injured her left leg in a 2007 accident, but became a long distance warrior.  The leg healed.  So swimming can heal.

Swimming can change our moods.  Dr. Tanaka in his research does “assessments of mood states,” from swimming.  He says, “With identical exercise programs in running, cycing and swimming, people place the highest enjoyment in swimming.”  In other words, people keep swimming because they like it.

Tanaka was asked, What makes swimming so good for aging bodies.  Weightlessness, he says.  Gravity is an enemy, and swimming takes away gravity.  Kim Chambers adds, “There is a giddiness in being in that water….  Swimming is a way for us to remember how to play.”  Perhaps we should play more in practice.  Even in a workout we can smile and think this is silly.  Then why are we swimming?  Because we can, and it feels good to be in the water.

Another recommendation for living longer is to be part of social groups.  Those I swim with are one such group.  Tsui spends several chapters on the camaraderie at a pool with regulars who meld into a group.  The group happened to be in Baghdad, and during the 2008 “surge” the pool became a place where rank and the dangers of the war disappeared.  In a swim suit, one cannot tell who is the officer and who is the grunt.

Let us not forget competition.  Tsui focuses on Dara Torres who swam in five Olympics, a feat more outstanding than all of her medals.  Torres was the epitome of being a Navy SEAL.  “Focus on your job.”  Torres’ job was to swim as fast as possible from one wall to the next.

Phelps’ mantra was “Stay in your lane.”  He ignored his competitors in races, urged on by his coach, who said, “Don’t say ‘can’t.’”  That is also good advice for practice.  Someone once said, “Comparisons are odious.”  Swim within and for yourself.  After you are done, you can be convivial and become part of the tribe again.

Tsui, with a Japanese background, investigated samurai swimming.  Samurai had to swim in full armor, keeping their swords dry.  But what was most important was “mizu no kokoro,” (mind like water), and “nihon eiho,” (mind and water together).

When we are swimming across a lake, for instance, the wind may come up, and we must change our stroke.  It is useless to fight the wind and its waves.  We must use “nihon eiho,” and fit our stroke to the pattern and frequency of the waves.

In similar fashion, when the lake is flat with no wind, “mizo no kokoro” comes into play.  We just swim and eventually meld into the water.

The hard part is to duplicate either of these attitudes in a pool.  We are interrupted by turns.  Chlorine and people in other lanes distract us.  We lose the SEAL attutude or samurai focus that swimming is really about.

Ishmael once said, “Meditation and water are wedded together.”  It was popular once to say, “go with the flow.”  Tsui says we still can if we swim.

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