In the fitness world, swimmers don't seem to get the attention that runners do, but dedicated swimmers are every bit as committed to their chosen form of exercise as the many distance runners out pounding the pavement. Just take a look at the swimmers doggedly completing their laps early one morning in a crowded community pool. They're determined—you might even say they're "in deep."
Journalist Lynn Sherr, best known for her work as a correspondent on ABC’s “20/20,” describes her interest in swimming as "an obsession, benign but obstinate." In Swim: Why We Love the Water, she chronicles her love of the sport, culminating in her landmark long-distance swim of the Hellespont, the strait that separates Europe from Asia. Along with her personal journey, she offers a quick trip through the history of swimming, with fascinating tidbits about swimmers of old and their modern counterparts.
We jumped in with some questions for Sherr about her own passion for swimming and mankind’s long fascination with being in the water.
How did you get started as a swimmer? What are your earliest memories of swimming?
It began with frogs. As a toddler I used to watch them, mesmerized, at the edge of the lake at the camp my parents owned in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. And I learned. No kidding—my breast stroke is very strong and my frog kick is terrific.
When I got old enough to be a proper camper—all of five years old—I also got some proper human lessons. There were always (as there are now) faster swimmers than I, but I always relished jumping into the water and making it to the other side.
Tell us about your swimming routine. Do you swim regularly for fitness?
Ever since I joined U.S. Masters Swimming last year, I’ve been doing drills at least twice a week in winter, sometimes accompanied by hour-long swims on other days. In the summer, I swim daily—outside—in the ocean or the bay or in the pool. My goal last year, when I was training for the Hellespont swim, was to swim longer distances, at a faster pace. I had worked up to two hours or more in the water before I went there.
Today I’m just trying to perfect my freestyle and pick up my speed. And while half an hour used to satisfy me on the off days, I’ve gotten so used to the longer workouts that I feel cheated if I have to stop before an hour is up.
You describe some of the gadgets now available for swimmers—lap counters, fancy goggles, etc. What's the one swimming accessory you can't live without?
If I could only have one piece of equipment it would be goggles. They’ve changed so much about the sport: the ability to swim for long stretches in both chlorine and salt. The ability to actually see underwater. And for those of us who are nearsighted, the ability to wear contact lenses—or prescription goggles—and actually see what’s in front of us.
I just wish they didn’t make you look so weird. We all look like extra-terrestrials about to invade planet Earth.
Where is your favorite place to swim?
Anywhere the water is warm and the lane is free. When it comes to the debate between pools and open water, I’m an equal-opportunity addict. Yes, you’re bouncing between walls in a blue box—but pools have a beauty of their own that I find irresistible. And yes, there is a special joy in the wild waters of a natural bay, or lake, or ocean, especially when you start in one place (or one continent) and finish in another. Come to think of it, I miss lake swimming and would love to find a wonderful new (warm) lake swim.
And I’d say that a golden sun and blue sky certainly help, but then, I like to swim at night, also, when the stars reflect on the surface; and I like to swim in a steaming hot pool when the snow is falling. That’s one of the cool things about swimming: there’s always another body of water.
One of the statements in the book that surprised me was: "I have never had a bad swim." C'mon! Hasn't the water ever been too cold? Or the pool too crowded? Or your body too tired to enjoy a swim?
No, no and no. Let me explain: I just don’t go in when it’s too cold. I am NOT a polar bear type. I know my limits. As for the crowds: well, sure, I prefer my own lane, and I’m not crazy about mass start in open water races. But just last weekend, while I was swimming in a hotel pool, I actually invited a waiting swimmer to share my lane because I knew I’d be in for an hour and didn’t want to deprive her. And then there’s last summer, when I voluntarily joined 431 swimmers from around the world to cross the Hellespont. If you’d looked closely, you would have noticed that I held back during the start—to keep from getting swallowed up by the crowd. There are ways.
As for the fatigue, call me crazy, but I like that feeling after a good, hard swim. And if I’m tired going in, the water wakes me up.
So I’m not a Polyanna about it. Just sensible. And lucky.
I love the Egyptian hieroglyph of a swimmer that’s included in the book. Where or how did you come across that?
Me too—in fact I love all the images I found illustrating the remarkable history of swimming. I did a huge amount of research, consulting hundreds of books and articles and websites, not to mention scholars and swimming professionals. And the idea that taking a swim was so familiar to the ancient Egyptians that they had a symbol for it, made me dig even deeper. For that one I found an Egyptologist, Bob Brier, through a Greek classicist (it was my college major), and he sent me the hieroglyph.
By the way, I’m especially proud to have included two ancient coins showing swimming—one with the goddess Aphrodite and one, the mythical Leander. Wouldn’t it be nice if our modern quarters showed a swimmer?
There are many references in your book to the spiritual aspects of swimming. How would you describe the experience of swimming and what it does for you in a spiritual or emotional sense?
It lifts my soul and it calms my body; it energizes me and soothes me, all at once. I can think about things in the water with a laser-like focus that is often not possible on dry land, in a noisy office. I have written some of my best ledes while swimming laps. And figured out some of the thorniest problems.
I have a friend who split from her husband and then spend hours a day in the pool, just going back and forth in her singleness. She worked it out. Me? I’ve cried in the water and laughed there, too; it’s so non-judgmental, I can enter it without reservation. It probably helps that we’re near-naked when we swim: no barriers, no hidden secrets.
Not that it’s all so serious. I like to play in the water, too, especially with my grandchildren. I do a wicked sea monster.
Now that you've swum the Hellespont, do you have any other long-distance swimming goals?
Let me first say that accomplishing the Hellespont was, hands down, the purest jolt of exuberance I’ve ever experienced. I was on a high for days—maybe weeks—afterwards, and I cherish the friendships that were forged in and around the waters. Perhaps more important, I proved to myself that I could challenge my body and push it to a new sense of power. [In the photo below, Sherr shows the medal she received last summer for swimming the Hellespont—a storied channel that divides Europe and Asia.]
So yes, it’s very tempting to find a new goal and go for that feeling again. And certainly there are channels and lakes that tempt me. I’m looking at a few, but there’s nothing specific at the moment. Although I am considering a smaller but equally iconic crossing this summer: the race from Brooklyn to Manhattan across New York’s East River and under the Brooklyn Bridge. Stay tuned.
Do you have any encouraging words for adults who don't know how to swim or aren't confident about their swimming skills?
May I quote Dory, the bighearted blue fish from the movie Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” Several of the people in my USMS class didn’t start until they were in their 30s or 40s, and they’re doing major marathons today. But you don’t have to aim for the English Channel. I think there’s a major sense of satisfaction waiting for anyone who can make it down the lane for the first time. It’s fun, it’s good for you, and as you get older, it’s probably the only strenuous activity you can do comfortably, without wrecking your joints. Also, it can save your life.
Who do you hope will read this book?
I hope it reaches a wide cross-section of readers (and listeners—there’s an audiobook too). Obviously, the swimming community, whose devotion to this activity reflects my own passion. Swimmers love—LOVE—to swim, and I’m so eager for them to learn more about the rich history and lore of this wonderful activity. Did you know that Julius Caesar escaped from the enemy by swimming? That Chairman Mao performed his famous Yangtze River swim mostly on his back—with his arms and legs afloat in what one wag called his “lounge-chair style”? That the first person to cross the English Channel (MatthewWebb) used the breast stroke? That President John Quincy Adams nearly drowned in the Potomac? And that no bathing cap in the world will keep your hair dry?
But I also hope that non-swimmers will be intrigued enough to see what they’re missing. To appreciate that this ancient activity indeed has something for everyone; that even if you’re just a fan of Esther Williams movies (or lucky enough to be experiencing those magnificent spectacles for the first time), or tired of being a fashion victim in the ghastly lighting of most bathing suit dressing rooms, there’s something in swimming, and Swim—for everyone.
So I’m hoping that those who can’t swim will be inspired to take some lessons and dive in themselves. I hope it makes people want to get wet.
CREDITS: Egyptian hieroglyph from R. O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.
Photo of Lynn Sherr with Hellespont medal by Sharon Young.