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by Kristina Henry

July 3, 2013

Author of ‘Swimming Studies’ on discipline, metaphors, and lemon cakes

Kristina Henry reviewed Leanne Shapton's "Swimming Studies" for the July-August issue of SWIMMER, but that only told half the story. Her interview with Shapton reveals more about this very personal memoir of a talented swimmer and artist.

USMS: You begin the book by talking about the first time you quit swimming. You don’t have a detailed memory of the conversation with your coach and yet the rest of the book is filled with extremely vivid sensory details. Was it hard for you to revisit the past?

LS: It was surprisingly hard to revisit the dramatic parts; the quitting, the Olympic Trials. I suppose I might have thought at the time that I would not forget the details of those events, but I did. What I could recall so vividly were the smaller moments, the smells of things, the tiles, the repetitive details that filled up the hours, or the banal but new things that occurred on trips, but outside of the pool. Like crossing a busy highway to go grocery shopping with teammates, in Winnipeg. Some memories came back so easily while I had to check back to my diaries for others.

USMS: You use a lot of metaphors in your writing. When you make the North African lemon olive-oil cake and come close but don’t quite get it, that was an interesting albeit sad foreshadowing of your return to swimming. Thoughts?

LS: I think sometimes the best way to use metaphor is by accident. The lemon cake chapter was adapted from a piece I wrote for the New York Times, which was supposed to be about insomnia, but turned out to be one of the first things I wrote about swimming. I sort of stumbled into that metaphor without knowing it. So much of the process of writing the book was my trying to make sense of my relationship to the sport, and trying to pin down these memories and place them in the context of my adult life. I had never written anything of this length before so writing became a way for me to find out and clarify what I thought and felt. I think many of the metaphors sprung up organically and through experiment. I might not see them until a chapter was roughly finished.

USMS: Would you consider joining a Masters swim team again?

LS: I would. I enjoyed my time with the Hydras, but it was sort of a workshop—I was closely studying my reaction to practices and a routine again, and as I described in the book, I felt both comforted and frustrated by the familiarity. When I did lap swimming during my pregnancy I took some pressure off myself, used the slow lane instead of the fast one, and felt a whole new sense how swimming could fit into my life. I also really loved tagging along to practice with the Masters team at the outdoor pool in Berkeley. I could imagine joining a Masters team again if I could swim in an outdoor pool regularly. I love outdoor pools.

USMS: Your inclusion of how the book and movie versions of JAWS made quite an impression on you was lighthearted and yet pivotal to your book, since every swimmer has feelings about swimming in open water. Do you think swimmers fall into two distinct camps, competitive and open water? 

LS: Going by my very random, unscientific polling, it seems competitive swimmers generally do not love to swim in open water. I felt my former coach Byron MacDonald summed it up when he said that for him it was the "What's down there?" factor. I do think swimmers fall into either camp, sure, but there are probably swimmers and surfers and triathletes who love both equally, too. I love reading about open water swimming. Lynne Cox's book was amazing and one of my favorite pieces of writing was Alec Wilkinson's article about deep-water diving in The New Yorker in 2009. For me an open water swim is more exhilarating, whereas a pool swim is more meditative.

USMS: Your eye for detail and your ability to make swimming a universal experience are evident in your writing. Did you talk to fellow swimmers about their experiences while writing the book? 

LS: I didn't. I spoke mainly to my brother and to Byron Macdonald. It's been so surprising to me to realize that much of what I described and set down was shared by other swimmers. In fact, I was prepared for other swimmers to not like what I was writing, as it certainly isn't a motivational book. My attitude towards the sport veers from true love to ambivalence, to sentimentality and back to fandom. I wasn't sure how it would be received. It was a huge surprise to win the NBCC award, and has meant a lot to hear from former swimmers and teammates who have responded positively to the book. 

USMS: I enjoyed the images of favorite swimsuits and the stories about them. They fit nicely in the book and offer another perspective to your narrative. How many suits do you own?

LS: I'm afraid to report that is only half of my collection! I have about 50 suits, (and corresponding swimming stories) but I just lost one of the ones in the book at a hotel. I left it in the pocket of a bathrobe.

USMS: What has been the response to your book among family, friends, and swimming peers and coaches?

LS: It's been mixed, as with any book. It's not for everyone, but as I mentioned, the response from some swimmers and swimming peers has been the most surprising, as I had expected indifference. What was also wonderful was the support I had from friends, my publisher, editor, and agent in trying to write this kind of book after only doing very image-driven work in the past. It took a while to sell the book and the support of a few key people was crucial.

USMS: Your childhood is spent in a much more provincial setting than your adult years. What brought you to the more exotic locales you mention in the latter part of the book?

LS: I think swimming whet my appetite for travel. I still remember the thrills of hotel rooms at out-of-town meets as a teenager. I spent a year at art school in New York, and though I lived and worked in Toronto and London for a while afterwards, NYC had seduced me, and I moved here permanently 10 years ago. I traveled a lot for my nonprofit publishing house, J&L Books, (we'd print out books in Iceland) and then went on to travel with my husband, and more recently to do publicity for my other books. I always seek out the public pools in the cities I travel to and try to stay in hotels with pools.

USMS: You talk of artistic and athletic disciplines being kissing cousins. Are you able to do both at the same time, creating and marketing your art and swimming competitively, or are they mutually exclusive endeavors?

LS: Well, I was interested in comparing the discipline I applied as a swimmer to the discipline I need for writing or painting or just doing a job well. I think the disciplines come from essentially the same place. I don't do both these days, so I try to apply what good habits I developed in the pool, (tenacity, patience, hard work) to whatever I do now. 

USMS: Your love of the sport is palpable and unlike other athletes who write about their careers, you portray your experience in a very direct fashion, regret mixed with understanding and fondness. Was that your intention?

LS: Yes. I have such mixed feelings about the sport, and I was never a champion so could not rely on that kind of drama. Also, the sports writing I like to read is not the triumphant, redemptive kind. I love how David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis, and how John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about horse racing. I like a little culture and anecdote and weirdness in my sports stories. Because I was never top three, I was also always interested in the stories of competitors who don't come in first, the silver and bronze medalists who tend to get forgotten, and then what of poor 4th place, or 104th place? My experiences have also given me a perspective on quitting that I'm slowly appreciating. Writing the book made me think hard about being able to admit when you want something, and also about overcoming the fear of leaving something behind.

USMS: Having been swimming for a few decades, what changes have you seen in the sport in terms of technique and do you focus more on technique as an adult swimmer? What would you say to people who begin swimming and competing as adults (in their 30s-40s-50s+) and do you think it's ever to late to start?

LS: As I don't compete any more I haven't really been focusing on technique or changes in the sport. While researching the book, I clarified some new rules and technology with Byron Macdonald, but I didn't really apply anything technique-wise to my own strokes (other than—doing freestyle—breathing every stroke a little more than I did when I competed as a teenager.) I've never really focused on technique. When I try to give stroke tips to my husband or friends, I'm probably giving them technique tips circa 1992.

I really admire people who are beginning to swim as adults, it's an enormous undertaking and, I imagine, like learning a new language. I'm afraid I don't have much to offer in terms of advice other than stick with it despite the cold water. It’s a beautiful and rewarding sport to have in your life. 

USMS: Being a new mother, will you encourage your child to swim?

LS: I will. I want to teach her to swim as early as possible. As a practical skill more than anything. But if she's interested in competing, after all those winter 5 a.m. morning practices my mother drove me to, I figure it's only fair if someday I have to do the same.


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