Particular Books £20

Swimming Studies, By Leanne Shapton

This lyrical life aquatic is a stroke of pure genius

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn