Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies

by Amy Marie Slocum

Now in paperback for the first time via Blue Rider Press

Say I’m swimming with people, in the ocean, a pool, or a lake, and one of them knows about my history as a swimmer, and remarks to the others, “Leanne’s an Olympic swimmer.”

So starts Leanne Shapton’s memoir, Swimming Studies, now in paperback for the first time via Blue Rider Press. Swimming Studies is a compelling bildungsroman filtered through the lens of the discipline and sacrifice that accompanies the pursuit of excellence in anything. Beginning with Shapton’s introduction to swimming at age nine, the story follows her ascent in the ranks of competitive swimming--culminating with two Olympic trials--and her eventual decision to leave the sport and pursue life as an artist. Written in poignant vignettes, Shapton’s story feels as if it could have been related by a friend over drinks.

Watching him in the waves, I realize he doesn’t see life as rigor and deprivation. To him, it’s something to enjoy, where the focus is not on how to win, but how to flourish--in both the literal and the superficial sense. I can understand flourishes, the conceptual, the rare, the inspired, and the fantastic. James introduces me to the idea of bathing.

A recurring motif, bathing--the act of spending time in a body of water for pleasure--is evoked as a coveted unknown, as desired and out-of-reach as a $900 gray sweater that Shapton’s mother, when pressured to choose a gift, indicates that she might like, but in truth, doesn’t really want.

There’s something “Rocking-Horse Winner” about the moment: the dark places that shame will take you and exhaust you. [...] Why should I expect her to be seduced by things I myself am uneasy about?

The anxiety that one is not doing what one ought to is prevalent throughout the story. When swimming, Shapton worries that she is missing out on normal life events. When she leaves swimming, she misses the discipline and clear-cut reward inherent in that practice.

Interspersed throughout the book--in the style of Women in Clothes (2014) another Blue Rider Press title co-authored by Shapton (along with Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits)--are blue and white paintings, and a supplement of Shapton’s various bathing suits accompanied by notes on when and where they were bought and worn.

Similarly to a story related by a friend over drinks, Shapton’s memoir is meandering and melancholy; jumping easily from stories of training and life on the road to ones of the more nebulous waters of marriage and career.

The feeling that Shapton--which she shares with her compatriots Heti and Julavits--communicates so well is one of unsurety: of being comfortable in the unknown, even when the unknown is yourself. She is a woman who is simultaneously entirely comfortable in her skin, but also apart from it, as if her body was not herself.

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