Swimming Studies, By Leanne Shapton

This lyrical life aquatic is a stroke of pure genius

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The Independent Culture

Many of us have spent the past fortnight shivering in excitement at the extraordinary feats of the Olympians. But what of those who did not quite make it? Who recognised, aged 14, that they were not destined for the winner's podium?

Leanne Shapton,a former Canadian Olympic triallist swimmer, was pounding the lanes at 5.30am one chilly morning when she realised that she was exhausted. "My arms hurt, legs hurt, lungs hurt and I think, grimly: What for? ... Then it comes to me, gently, in a quiet flash: I am not going to the Olympics. I will not be going. Not me."

Yet it wasn't the daily grind of practise, five hours a day, six days a week, that finally did for her. It was that her family was moving to the countryside, and she didn't want to move in with a foster family in order to carry on training. Yet, she writes at the start of this quietly philosophical memoir, "I still dream of practice, of races, coaches and blurry competitors. I'm drawn to swimming pools, all swimming pools, no matter how small or murky. When I swim now, I step into the water as though absent-mindedly touching a scar." It is a scar that shows throughout her writing and sketches.

Since quitting the pool, Shapton has forged a career in the visual arts, and, alongside her written reminiscences, we are presented with evocative abstract illustrations of pools she has known and impressionistic silhouettes of former acquaintances; with old diary entries revealing the earnestness of youth: "I am not crazy about Stacy," reads one, "since noticing that she copied onto her own shoes the piano keys I drew on the inside of my sneakers."

Those who have read the cult open-water classic The Haunts of the Black Masseur will recognise a voice of gliding lyricism that attends the best writing on this subject, and which mirrors in feel the effort yet grace of the mechanics involved in swimming: "A low thump as her hands hit the touchpad. Brief cheering at an intake of breath, collapsing into bubbles as her head, aligned and steady, dips back and under again at the turn ... There is a rippling during the long stroke of her underwater pullout, a tight, thin sigh of effort, a gruff exhalation of air, a grunt at the dolphin kick." And it is with this sort of description that it becomes clear quite how much Shapton loves her sport.

Yet Swimming Studies is so much more than recollections of physicality. It is a testament to obsession. (Shapton mentally runs through the timings of a race against the beep of the microwave, and kicks her way to victory while lying in bed.) It is a whimsical paean to the thoughts that invariably drift through the mind during a long session. It is an olfactory reverie with illustrated ovals of colour to represent the smells of training. (One, dark red, is the wet team towel – heavy notes of chlorine, light notes of garlic, lakeside dock, and brown bread.) It is a poetic exploration of a fear of the sea. ("I get spooked by the open-ended horizon, the cloudy blue thought of that sheer drop … My dread of sharks is my fear of loneliness, vulnerability, violence.") It is a fond memory of the rhythms of family life. It is an embarrassing admission that having an aesthetically pleasing pair of goggles can make you feel faster. It is gold-winning stuff. It is, simply, a delight.