The cover of Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim

Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim. Why I swim. Water and love.

Posted on: BY: Hilda Nkosi
Tags: Bonnie Tsui | culture | Guðlaugur Friðþórsson | history | Kim Chalmers | love | meditation | Why We Swim

Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim made me reflect on my own relationships with swimming and water. A review of sorts…

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We dare to jump so we can see something new. And sometimes we do it to recover a sense of what we once had.

Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim

The Otter Family Rides

Some of my earliest memories are of swimming.

I have been a ‘little otter’, as my dad used to call me (or more precisely ‘his’ little otter), for as long as I can remember. 

Truth be told, we were a family of little otters. My mother swam to relieve the aches and pains of pregnancy (something I can since vouch for myself). I was in swimming lessons at two years old and swimming unaided soon after. My 3 siblings were all in competitive swimming from an early age. But out of the soggy bunch of us, I was considered the water babe.

In my mind, my childhood is now just a polaroid album of water adventures. From beaches to rivers to lakes, to rock pools, paddling pools and of course swimming pools. Somewhere along the way I seem to have edited out most of the terrestrial events of my early life.

Any road trip was punctuated by several water-themed stops. Water parks, pools, beaches, lakes, rivers. We were lucky enough to vacation at beaches and lakes. Camping. Nothing glamorous. But we feasted like kings.

a child swimming in a lake with head out of the water, wearing a snorkel mask pushed back on the head
Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim will make you reflect on your own relationship with water

I was always the first into the water, after literally seconds, usually wearing my swimsuit in the car to aid in quick transitions. I was inevitably the last pickled cucumber out of the water, often pulled out, pleading, by my dad, brusquely towel-dried, shivering and thrown into the back seat in a fleecy hooded dressing gown. 

Perhaps these and many more faded polaroids I have stored in damp shoe boxes in my brain are best summarized by the overwhelming sense I felt of being loved. Being loved dearly and being enveloped in water was the same thing for me as a child.

Love and play in Why We Swim

While not explicitly articulated, this is a concept that resonated for me in ‘Why We Swim’. The book is part historical, part cultural, part philosophical, but also largely part memoir. 

Tsui, like myself, hails from a swimming family. Her mom was a swimmer and her father was a lifeguard. That’s how they met. Growing up, the family spent their happiest times on the beaches of Long Island. The marriage didn’t last, but one feels that the powerful connection of love and water had been forged in those young days playing in the waves, as it had been for me on those chilly Oregon beaches and wild Wisconsin roadtrip river runs.

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Swimming is a way for us to remember how to play.

Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim
Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim
Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim

Bonnie Tsui, Journalism and swimming

When she was six years old, Bonnie Tsui and her brother were asked to choose between soccer and swimming. They both opted for competitive swimming. 

Bonnie is an award-winning journalist now, but swimming is still a huge part of her life. Her husband is also from a huge swimming family. They celebrated their wedding by swimming Lake George, and continue to celebrate their anniversary the same way each year. 

Tsui’s boys have grown up experiencing water and love too. The family lives in coastal San Francisco. 

What is Why We swim about?

But Why We Swim is not just a memoir, it is also a quest to discover the strange and varied ways in which humans interact with water, and to understand why it impacts our souls so profoundly. She seeks to explain how swimming is intrinsically connected to who we are as humans. To explain Why We Swim. 

To this end, why we swim is divided into five sections: Survival, Wellbeing, Community, Competition, and Flow.

Ancient swimming history

Tsui tries to explain the profound connection with swimming and water we have today by tracing the strands of our ancient history. 

Our cultural history of swimming is fragmental at best. Bonnie Tsui takes off from this platform, to explore worlds and histories that are fresh and surprising. 

One of the fascinating and interesting concepts of the book is that she is often trying to piece together the history of something that is largely without historical artifacts or evidence like other things we might investigate. As Tsui herself says “we leave a wake but the wake disappears”. There are no footprints, no objects. In this sense swimming mimics existence and the human experience.

Tsui travels to the Sahara desert where she visits the site of a lake that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. Paleontologists have discovered remains and pieced together the lives of the people who lived there and survived by swimming and diving for their food.

Cultural explorations in Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim

Tsui explores Asian cultures where swimming and diving to subsist from the fruits of the sea or the lake still continue in some forms.  The ‘Haenyeo’ or ‘Sea Women’ of South Korea’s Jeju island, for example, who swim and dive all day, seeking sea conches and pearls and have lived off the sea for centuries.

She writes of the Moken peoples of Malaysia, who read the signs of the water and whom survived the Great Tsunami in large numbers as a result.

Tsui tells us of polar swimming champions, the Baghdad swimming club that swims in former president Saddam Hussein’s pool, samurais who once swam (and still swim today) in all their armor, performing feats like archery or swimming with their feet and hands bound.  

Saddam Hussein's swimming pool in Baghdad, an opulent pool with arches and vaulted ceilings
Saddam Hussein’s swimming pool in Baghdad – one of the sites Bonnie Tsui visits in Why We Swim to explore cultural relationships to water and swimming

Perhaps the best story of all is the gripping tale of Icelandic fisherman, a story which returns throughout the narrative of Why We Swim

The miraculous tale of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson

Guðlaugur Friðþórsson capsized in a fishing boat off the coast of the Westman Islands and swam 3.2 miles in 41 degree water, for six hours. On reaching the shore he could not find a way up the steep cliffs, and was forced to enter the water again to find a better place to get help. He crossed miles of jagged ice with bare feet and finally reached help 9 hours after the boat sunk.  

An annual swimming race is swum in pools across Iceland to commemorate the feat of Friðþórsson and to honor the four unfortunate men who didn’t make it to shore that night. 

A young Guðlaugur Friðþórsson standing on the rocks wearing a plaid blue shirt
Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, the Icelandic man who survived a ship wreck in frigid waters against all odds.

Kim Chalmers in Why We Swim

Equally inspiring is the story of Kiwi Kim Chalmers, the San Francisco Bay swimmer who came to swimming after a fall on the stairs left her suddenly injured. She almost had her leg amputated and started swimming as a means to rehabilitation. 

In a relatively short time (a few years), she accomplished swimming feats most people dream of. She went on to become only the sixth person to complete the Oceans Seven. There’s actually a Netflix movie of Kim’s story, called ‘Kim Swims’.

Why is swimming good for you?

Tsui writes about the science of swimming. Not very scientifically, to be sure – if you’re looking for science, this is not the goal here – but it’s interesting to hear what we already know: that swimming is good for you.

There is something wholesome about swimming that makes you grateful that you happened upon it. Something that makes you glad you were born into it or that it’s a part of your life. Your family could have been a football family. 

How many childhood footballers are returning to the sport in their 40s? How many are still doing it in their 80s?

There is a deep all-body relaxation that you experience while swimming that Bonnie Tsui wants to describe. Swimming lowers blood pressure and is great for arthritis outcomes. This comes as no surprise to anyone who swims regularly. 

Buoyancy, floating, weightlessness. Freedom.

Swimming, like sex, can sometimes feel a lot like a medicine. If we listened to our bodies more closely, we’d see that we deserve a more regular dose. Whoever got out of the pool or lake regretting they swam? 

Similar to yoga, swimming is a strange, meditative, use of the body. It is acute presence with the muscles and the body and especially the breath. Yet it is also forgetting and peace and distance.

But more so than yoga, there is something of our existence in the real world  that goes along with the breathing and stretching and meditation when we swim. A connection with being alive. Something akin to doing yoga outside and feeling spots of rain on your skin.

We are in the water. Swimming is an activity done surrounded by fluid. There is an embrace and a security; a serenity akin to being in utero. The water is touching every part of us. 

But there is uncertainty too. We are cold or hot. There might be currents, fish, and sea weed. We push against the water, float on it, rest against it. It envelopes us. Swimming is like yoga in the pouring rain. 

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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 world?

Bonnie Tsui Why We Swim

World famous swimmers in Bonnie Tsui How We Swim

Tsui interviewed some famous swimmers like Michael Phelps and Dana Torres for Why We Swim. To explore the relationship that great swimmers have with the water. 

What makes a person return to water, despite having achieved olympic gold medals and achieving inhuman feats like the Oceans Seven? These people seem to all feel at one with the water. Like Guðlaugur Friðþórsson they have a never say die attitude. They embrace living for the present moment. They are at one with the water.

Why I Swim

I read Why We Swim over the last couple of weeks, reading a little and processing it. Swimming. Always swimming. I cherished the (imagined) dialogue with an author whose upbringing and relationships with water echo my own in many ways. 

I have come away from these stories and explorations feeling a deeper affinity for other human beings who seek the serenity of the water, whether in the swimming pool or in open water. 

This morning, after my swim, i stood with my cold feet in the water on the sea shore and thought about why I swim. 

My answer, like Bonnie’s, is ‘for many reasons’. I swim because I feel alive. Swimming makes me feel healthy. I don’t swim because I want to win. Not anymore. These days I swim for community and camaraderie.

I swim to relax and meditate and escape. To rid myself of the spacejunk with which this toxic world constantly pollutes our souls.

Reaching my car and toweling off my hair brusquely. Throwing on my fleece dressing gown and cranking the heat. Chattering my teeth. I saw a faded polaroid of my dad I’d tucked away in a cobwebbed corner of my brain, and I realized I swim because in water I feel love.

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