If You’re Missing the Water, Don’t Miss these Books

A List of Books About Swimming Compiled by Barbara Hummel, Head Coach, UVRays Masters Swim Team

Swimming has a rich literary heritage that’s worth exploring, especially during this time when pools are closed and we’re missing the rituals surrounding our daily immersions.

What follows is a list of swimming books I’ve enjoyed over the years. The list is quirky to me and by no means exhaustive. For example, it doesn’t include some of the wonderful short stories about swimming found in larger collections (think Cheever’s “The Swimmer” or Miranda July’s “The Swim Team”). Nor does it include the many inspirational memoirs by Olympic greats such as Phelps, Coughlin, Beard, and Franklin. And despite (maybe because of?) the fact that I’ve been teaching and coaching swimming for nearly six decades, it excludes books on swim technique and how to be faster in the water.

Rather, this is a list of books that celebrate our experience of swimming and of water itself. My descriptions will be brief — like the whiff of chlorine on the back of a hand — perhaps just enough to send you to Amazon, where you can read more and choose your preferred method of delivery (audible, Kindle, hardcover, paperback).

This time away from the pool can be a gift – a time to lift your head and think about what swimming means to you, and about what kind of swimmer you want to be when you get back in. These books, listed alphabetically by author, can help guide your thoughts in new directions. Enjoy!

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory
By Julie Checkoway
In 1937, three years before the scheduled Olympics of 1940, a schoolteacher named Soichi Sakamoto challenged a group of poverty-stricken kids on the island of Maui to become Olympic swimmers. They had no pool, no resources, no hope of escaping a life of virtual slavery in the sugarcane fields. Their coach could barely swim, but he had a dream, and the ability to instill that dream in his team. They started by training in filthy irrigation ditches but, in their third year, were declared some of the greatest swimmers in the world. Don’t miss this one! Audio version is good.

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
By Daniel Coyle
Coyle travels to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds (baseball, music, soccer) to identify how extraordinary talent is developed. I try to listen to this audiobook once a year. It has shaped the way I teach, coach, and swim, and can help anyone develop a clearer path to reach their full potential.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
By Lynne Cox
Sports Illustrated review:
“More than the story of the greatest open-water swimmer, Swimming to Antarctica is a portrait of rare and relentless drive….Gripping.”

By Lynne Cox
The almost mystical tale of what happened when 17-year-old Lynne Cox discovered that a baby gray whale was swimming beneath her during one of her long swims off the coast of California.

Whale Talk
By Chris Crutcher
For young-adult readers, but I loved this book.
From a 5-star review:
“When I began reading Whale Talk, I thought I would be reading a story about a teenager struggling to put together a swim team at his very athletically driven high school [that has no pool and where only one team member can swim].
What I ended up reading, however, was a story about perseverance, acceptance, tolerance, love, and sacrifice.”

Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain
By Roger Deakin
Open this book at any page and you’ll find words that evoke the magic of water and the effect it has on our minds and bodies.
From the back cover:
“Inspired by John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer,’ Roger Deakin set out to swim through the British Isles. The result is Waterlog, a uniquely personal view of an island race and a people with a deep affinity for water. From the sea, from rock pools, from rivers and streams, tarns, lakes, lochs, ponds, lidos, swimming pools and spas, from fens, dykes, moats, aqueducts, waterfalls, flooded quarries, even canals, Deakin gains a fascinating perspective on modern Britain. …an unforgettable celebration of the magic of water.”

Bliss, Remembered
By Frank Deford
Historical fiction by celebrated sportswriter Frank Deford centers around a beautiful young swimmer (backstroker) on track for the 1936 Berlin Olympics — plus plenty of romance, intrigue, heroes and villains in Nazi Germany.

Staying with It: On Becoming an Athlete
By John Jerome
From the back jacket:
“At the age of 47 John Jerome decided to become an athlete – a competitive swimmer, to be exact…He threw himself into training and racing, with both scientific rigor and a certain amount of good humor. The result is a fascinating, lyrical, funny, suspenseful, and personal exploration of the idea of athleticism.”

Personally, my favorite chapter is called “The 1650,” in which Jerome describes the physical and mental journey of swimming the mile: “…when you’ve hit it right, when you haven’t tied up, dragged to a creaking halt by lactic acid – you get a few laps there at the end when anything seems possible. The pain doesn’t quit, it just doesn’t matter; you find it possible to go faster, and faster still. What you feel is joy. It’s almost enough to make all those laps that went before worthwhile.”

Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do
By Wallace J. Nichols
Amazon’s description says it all:
“Why are we drawn to the ocean each summer? Why does being near water set our minds and bodies at ease? In Blue Mind, Nichols revolutionizes how we think about these questions, revealing the remarkable truth about the benefits of being in, on, under, or simply near water. Grounded in cutting-edge studies in neurobiology, cognitive psychology, economics, and medicine, and made real by stories of innovative scientists, doctors, athletes, artists, environmentalists, businesspeople and lovers of nature – stories that fascinate the mind and touch the heart – Blue Mind will awaken readers to the vital importance of water to the health and happiness of us all.”

Swimming Studies
By Leanne Shapton
Winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, Autobiography
This meditative memoir by a graphic artist who once was a nationally ranked Canadian swimmer, includes written and visual sketches that will speak to all swimmers.
Shapton’s prologue:
“Water is elemental, it’s what we’re made of, what we can’t live within or without. Trying to define what swimming means to me is like looking at a shell sitting in a few feet of clear, still water. There it is, in sharp focus, but once I reach for it, breaking the surface, the ripples refract the shell. It becomes five shells, twenty-five shells, some smaller, some larger, and I blindly feel for what I saw perfectly before trying to grasp it.”

Swim: Why We Love the Water
By Lynn Sherr
From a review by the Wall Street Journal:
“What Ms. Sherr does best is describe the pleasures of the water, of finding yourself while losing yourself, giving yourself up to the supporting medium….and every chapter of the book builds her personal narrative [of swimming the Hellespont at age 60] while placing it in the context of often fascinating mini- treatises on subjects that reach beyond the water.”

Why We Swim
By Bonnie Tsui
Released in April 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 shutdown, this book is what every swimmer needs right now. Go get it immediately! I loved the audio version (very soothing) and have also purchased the physical book because I want to refer often to Tsui’s descriptions and want to pursue some of the many books and swim topics she covers. So far, this book has received nothing but 5-star reviews on Amazon and from the many professional review services such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and San Francisco Chronicle.

A Taste of Chlorine
By Bastien Vives
A beautiful drawn and paced graphic novel. A teenage boy starts swimming every Wednesday at the local pool. He meets a girl who agrees to give him pointers on his poor technique. Their tentative relationship exists and develops only in the water. Their emotions are as fluid and changing as water, and reflect the many reasons we return again and again to the pool.

Tarka the Otter
By Henry Williamson
This classic children’s book, by one of Britain’s finest nature writers, celebrates the life and habitat of Tarka the otter. Williamson spent years wandering the Devon countryside, tracking otters, observing them, making detailed notes, and absorbing their environment. The result is an evocative, gripping, heart-pounding and heart-breaking tale about nature’s most exuberant swimmer. You don’t have to be a kid to love this book. The audio version is highly recommended.

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