Why We Swim: An Inner Look At What Swimming Means

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Why We Swim: An Inner Look At What Swimming Means

Heading into her senior season at the University of Texas, Grace Ariola will be a Fellow this fall for the World Open Water Swimming Association. Recently, she read the New York Times best-selling book, Why We Swim (By Bonnie Tsui), and wrote an eloquent essay related to the book. Here is Ariola’s piece.

By Grace Ariola, WOWSA Fellow

To say Why We Swim was enlightening would be an understatement. It’s illuminating, broadening. It’s gratifying. It speaks. It’s self-serving – it belongs to the one who reads it. I am Bonnie Tsui, and Tsui knows me. She knew what I needed to hear and what I needed to learn. She knew what all swimmers, pool and open water, young and old, need to learn. To fellow pool swimmers, beginning and ending their careers, this is what I needed to hear now, and what I wish I’d heard when I was twelve, entering the world of elite swimming.

Tsui starts with the global history of swimming, what it means in different world cultures, how it assists in daily life and saves in environmental disasters. She starts in Iceland, where fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþórsson became a national icon when his fishing boat overturned late at night, killing his crew and forcing Guðlaugur to swim through near-frozen water to miraculously survive. His story is a rallying cry for Icelandic water safety and enjoyment. Guðlaugur is a recurring character throughout the book, whose tale encompasses the major themes: perseverance, healing, self-discovery, community, isolation, and life through water.

Tsui interviewed and researched all over the world, and it shows. Her extensive knowledge, descriptions of different lives and journeys, and personal reflections on the meaning of swimming are painful, honest and eye-opening. She talks about swimming “as a way for us to remember how to play.” As grownups, as adults, remembering how to be kids. As loners, remembering how to be together. As survivors, remembering one’s own body. She tells the story of Kim Chambers, overcoming severe illness and regaining the ability to walk through record-breaking swimming. She connects all of this with how it all started for many of us, as kids, playing with our friends in our too-big, ankle-length parkas of all colors.

As someone who has swum for most of my life, I thought I knew this sport pretty damn well. Although a pool swimmer, I’ve trained in open water. And although a sprinter, I’ve had coaches whose first and only love was long distance freestyle. When we did lake swims, I hated them. It was claustrophobic to me, I felt trapped in my goggles, only free as far as I could see. I could feel the enormity of the water lapping against me like a warning. This was not a pool. As a burgeoning elite pool swimmer, I could not handle the unknown of the turbulent murky water then – it was just too wild.

But that was over ten years ago. Now, in my senior year of college, the unknown of turbulent murky water takes on profound metaphorical meaning as I face the rest of my life, free from the structure of competitive pool swimming. Drawing inspiration from the book I decide to face my fear literally. When I arrive at Barton Creek Pool, an Austin swimming staple of clear water fed by underground springs and enclosed by dams, I could feel Tsui’s words for my own.

Ironically, as I pull into a parking spot, I see my college coach walking in. I yell to him, and we walk in together. As we approach the entrance, we see an old teammate, someone we both knew in the swimming world. Within three minutes of my journey to remember why I swim, I’m greeted by two people who represent the community and healing power of swimming. Prophetic. As I prepare to get in the water, there are more than a hundred people already swimming. They are adults of all ages, moving up and down the lake pool. I stand and watch for a while, figuring out the rules before I jump in. There’s a cold pit in my stomach when I realize there are no rules. People are just swimming.

During my swim, I realize I can see the bottom. I’m not trapped in my goggles anymore. It isn’t the supernatural, all-encompassing awakening I had imagined, but I do realize a few things about myself. First, I feel out of control in this big body of water. There is nothing to guide me or stabilize me .Second, I am so worried about hitting someone that I disrupt my own swim to make sure I don’t disturb any of the other swimmers. Third, when I’m done, I have no idea how far I’ve swum, and there is a wonderful sense of relief and freedom in that. There is no comparison, no clock, no competition here. A safe place.

Pool swimming has been my identity for most of my life. I was the girl people referred to as “the swimmer,” as I’m sure many of us were. In the last few years, injury and life events have led me here, in my senior year, nowhere near my best. This state of un-excellence created such cognitive dissonance in me, such grief. While I was reading Why We Swim, I kept wishing that my coaches had read it and absorbed even a fraction of the mindset Tsui describes. I was not raised to think swimming was fun. Swimming was about achieving excellence. Excellence involved doing things that were not fun, because excellence itself is supposed to be the fun part. And, to be fair, excellence is fun. Some of the highest moments of my life are at the biggest meets in competitive swimming, on top of podiums, receiving the validation of my peers. I grew addicted to that feeling, and when it was gone, so was I.

Why We Swim reminded me that swimming should have never been about excellence. It’s about life, about play and youth, about joy and self-actualization. There is nothing for me to grieve for. I will be able to swim long past my last collegiate meet. To fellow pool swimmers, competitors, excellence-seekers, mourners of what used to be, deniers, dreamers: there will always be water for us. Why We Swim just might guide you back to it, and back to what it used to mean.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Shawn Kennedy

    Grace, This was well writen. As swim parent, I must now read this book. We forget that all you “swim” girls started with the joy of just swimming. I remember the fun you girls had swimming good old summer swim 4Seasons relays. Then watching all of you do it, for some joy, but mostly to fully achieve your potential. To watch you practice hard, to avhieve, to podium. It puts a joy in my heart, to hear that you now swim for the joy it. As swim a Dad, I will always still stand behind you girls, with joy screaming “Let,’s Go Grace, Let’s Go Katie, Let’s Go 4 season!” Go swim and live your life with Joy.

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