Why We Swim is one part memoir and one part meditation on swimming. Tsui is a longtime contributor to the New York Times and a lifelong disciple of swimming. She catalogs her personal story alongside stories of other swimmers- including Olympic swimmers, war-zone swimmers, and Japanese samurai swimmers- each story uniquely inspires humanity’s attachment with water. Whether Tsui transports you from one continent to the next or transports you back a couple of millennia, that experience is immersive- palpable, auditory, and heady- and it will compel you to swim.
I had just watched Fishpeople in August 2021, it was mesmerizing and I highly recommend it. In September I went surfing for the first time, and I felt joyful, light and free after a long time. So when I found the book on a shelf at my local library I had to read it.
Reading Why We Swim brought to my mind personal memories of being in the water. I have a friend, he is 23 now, when we were discussing our ambitions for 2022 he said his goal is to learn to swim. I found that odd because I assumed all kids took swimming lessons. I realize what a privilege I had had to learn to swim. I remember the pool where I learned vividly. This was over 15 years ago and Bombay wasn’t plagued with pollution the way it is today. I could smell the salty sea and watch the balmy sky at sunset as I swam in the evenings. But before swimming was a treat it was terror. I cannot forget the man who was my swimming instructor as he took away my flotation device for the very first time. And I cannot forget the first time I had to jump off of the diving board. A dozen little children including me queued up to be thrown down in the case they don’t make the jump alone, and the parents in the stands spectating this bizarre baptism. I was sobbing bitterly and the instructor let go of me in the middle of his countdown. I genuinely thought that I was going to die. But my tiny body surfaced and I swam furiously to the edge. A few years later, I’d climb up those same levels and wait in queue delighted to dive. And I’d swim beside my friend to see who could make it to the floor of the diving pool faster.
So I get it, the human fascination with water, the desire to swim despite the dangers, it’s a result of our evolution. I get why Tsui wrote this book, she loves the water, she loves how she feels in the water, and it shows. Why We Swim celebrates swimming and to me it was a successful escape from the confines of the lockdown- at least momentarily.
To quote from the book, “It’s like reading books- when you’re in it, you’re not in the world outside”.
Here are some of my highlights.
“When I realized that no one had noticed I was in trouble, I pretended that I never was. And I turned right back into the sea.”
“Homo sapiens, began to evolve nearly two hundred thousand years ago from other species of now-extinct ancestral humans. There is evidence of those ancestral humans going to sea.”
“Buoyancy, floating, weightlessness, freedom. These are the words we use to talk about swimming. Is it a coincidence that this is also the language we use to talk about the lightness of being, the wellness of being, that we strive for in this corporeal weold?”