Consider Kim Chambers, Tsui’s companion on that almost balmy swim, who was motivated to swim as an adult, as therapy to recover from a traumatic injury. She became the sixth person to complete the Oceans Seven, “the open water equivalent of the Seven Summits,” consisting of the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Molokai Channel, Lake Tahoe, the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the Tsugaru Strait in Japan and the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland. From a quest for well-being came community and competition and flow. Maybe survival, too.
This is more of a quick dip than a comprehensive history of swimming, but it’s still full of good information. The paleontologist Paul Sereno’s 2000 discovery of a Stone Age cemetery and what it tells us about life in a Sahara once green with swimmable, fishable lakes is particularly fascinating. So are the back stories behind the development of various strokes, including the ever-baffling butterfly. Who knew that the first man to swim the English Channel, in 1875, drowned eight years later while trying to swim the Niagara River at the base of the Falls? Not this swimmer.
Tsui’s means of research include in-person interviews, video calls, secondary sources and descriptions drawn from Google Earth and YouTube videos. There are also a few lists, dropped awkwardly into the text. “Notable waters in literature, art and movies where our imaginations have gone swimming” could have been an appendix, or not there at all. Tsui is commendably transparent about her methods, but there are times when that gives “Why We Swim” the tone of a book report, one where the writer likely had travel limitations based on budget.
Well worth the expense was her trip to the Icelandic island that is home to the heroic fisherman Guolaugur Frioporsson, who in 1984 miraculously survived six hours, swimming more than three miles in 28-degree water, after his vessel sank. Tsui goes to meet Frioporsson — a reluctant subject — and to learn more about an annual community swimming event celebrating his famed swim. Unsurprisingly, she suits up and plunges in. These passages are tenderly told; you can feel Tsui endearing herself to someone who is clearly sick of talking to journalists about one night in his life, no matter how remarkable, but makes an exception for her.
Tsui endears herself to the reader as well. Her universal query is also one of self, and her articulations of what she learns are moving. Long-distance swimmers speak to her about how swimming frees their minds, of their sense of “sea-dreaming.” And Tsui’s argument about the unique state of flow one enters while swimming makes you desperately long to be in the pool or the ocean. Water becomes the mind’s sanctuary while the body moves in its best imitations of a fish. We’ll never be the fish, Tsui reminds us. “But we get glimpses of what it’s like to be the fish. We get flashes of forgetting the water.” How glorious.