An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behaviour itself.
We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world.
Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what it is about water that seduces us, despite its dangers, and why we come back to it again and again.
Over time, swimming has shifted from mere mechanics and survival—a military skill, practiced by men—to achieve a more intangible significance: a form of recreation, a pleasure, something that can sharpen your spiritual as well as physical health. This idea of swimming for wellness, emotional resonance, whole personhood, rings true to me. The physical is intertwined with the psychological.
Tsui captivated me with this collection of stories about how and why humans swim. The range from personal to legendary, from modern to historical, painted a broad picture and sparked my desire to return to the water. I didn’t realise how far I had drifted from my childhood full of summers swimming in lakes until I was reading Why We Swim and trying to remember the last time I put on a swimsuit to do something other than lying on the beach with only a quick dip in the water to cool down.
There are so many stories within these pages about people I’ve never heard of who have done incredible things. The human seal, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, is an Icelandic fisherman who swam for six hours in five-degree water to then trek for three hours barefoot across frozen lava fields after his boat capsized. Kim Chambers started swimming after she almost lost her leg in a freak accident and has since become the sixth person to complete the Ocean’s Seven swimming challenge, seven open water channel swims across the world, and the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge, a shark-infested 50km swim that took over 17 hours. Joseph ‘Jay’ Taylor started teaching swimming lessons in a swimming pool commissioned by Saddam Hussein at one of his opulent homes in the middle of the desert. He became Coach Jay and his pupils were the Baghdad Swim Team.
Tsui weaves these and other stories together with personal anecdotes, quotes from literature, historical figures, and research. Captivating, insightful, and beautifully written, I thoroughly enjoyed this tribute to the water and the exploration into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of humans swimming.