Popular wisdom has it that athletes can’t write memoirs. Sure, they can sell memoirs (and they do—by the boatload). But the prose itself always comes out dull and unreflective, even with the aid of a ghostwriter or two.
The late David Foster Wallace, a hapless consumer of these sorts of books, once wrote, “All right, so the obvious point: Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.” In fact, he argued, it was precisely this mental vapidity that enabled these men and women to become world-class performers. They couldn’t crumble under pressure because there was no voice in their heads to even process said pressure.
Leanne Shapton briefly references Wallace and the intersection of sport and literature in her new hybrid memoir. But the Ontario-born author isn’t admitting that he’s right. In a way, Swimming Studies can be read as a book-length refutation of such a notion—combining, as it does, an insightful look at Shapton’s life as a competitive swimmer (she went as far as the Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992) with a brainy, ruminative investigation into the nature of childhood passion, the power of routines, and the agonizing gap between being great at something versus being merely good at it.
Of course, it may well be that Shapton’s talents for artistic reflection are exactly what ruined her own chances of making it as a swimmer. Much of the memoir details, in a series of quietly elegant moments, how the shadow of Shapton’s youthful accomplishments has coloured the rest of her life. And this isn’t like a former rhythmic gymnast coming across a long ribbon once every few years, either. Water and swimming are everywhere. So Shapton is forced to come to terms with this thing that used to consume her life—which includes re-learning all of its non-competitive elements. A boyfriend, she writes, “introduces me to the idea of bathing.”
Swimming Studies describes the athletic part of things with a remarkable clarity. As a hopelessly average swimmer, I was in awe of an early passage where Shapton guides the reader, moment by moment, through the finals of a 100-metre breaststroke competition: from the initial dive (“something that resembles a tiny midair push-up”), to the way the noise of the crowd swells whenever a swimmer’s ear comes above the waterline, to the pain and fatigue that always set in during the final 15 metres. “Strokes shorten, weaken, churn, and find no purchase,” Shapton writes. “It’s a terrible, desperate feeling, where the results of training are determined.”
One of the things Shapton eventually gave up swimming for was painting. And she made a name for herself, too, as art director for the New York Times op-ed page and the now-defunct Canadian magazine Saturday Night. Accordingly, Shapton’s memoir is peppered with several series of her work, as well as a set of photographs documenting the 26 different swimsuits she still owns.
It’s these flourishes that best illustrate the fundamental split in her personality. Shapton writes, “I’m used to hearing artists and writers question what they do; self-loathing, doubt, and mental blocks are par for the course.” Then, from the other side of her brain: “Athletes may wince at muscle pain but generally don’t articulate their struggles. We respect them because they suck it up. They just do it.” Notice that when describing athletes, Shapton doesn’t include herself among them. Instead of we, she says they.
The smaller details are just as vivid. Shapton spends a lot of time describing her life on the road, the other kids she travelled with and competed against, and especially the carb-heavy meals she’d wolf down at whatever little restaurant was attached to the hotel. You can easily picture an adolescent Shapton hunched over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, her fork a blur of metal.
Swimming Studies was released earlier this summer, no doubt to coincide with the London Olympics. But I can’t think of a book that’s less suited to such a flimsy marketing buy-in. Shapton’s memoir exists in its own liquid and protean headspace. Reading it feels like sitting at the bottom of a pool, the world above totally and blissfully shut out. It’s one of the most alluring books of the year, and one that’s going to stick with you—at least until the summer games roll into Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Blue Rider Press, 336 pp., $31.50, hardcoverSep 5, 2012