Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton


Nothing very exciting is happening here. It’s the last day of freedom before school starts (that is my 11-year-old’s take, anyway). Swim practice was cancelled. Soccer is on (one game in Mississaugua, hers; another in Cambridge, mine). Soft wet snow is falling in quantities voluminous enough for the building of snow forts.

I went for my first long run of the year yesterday — 15km, which is pretty short by long run standards. It felt easy, and I went slow, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I spent a few kilometres sorting out structural details for the new book, and I spent the rest of the kilometres kind of thinking about absolutely nothing, except for running itself. The discipline and routine of an athletic pursuit seems to keep me happy, grounded.

I’ve been reading Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton, utterly fascinated at the glimpse into how a young person can be shaped by the rigour and routine and discipline of participating in competitive sport. This was not part of my growing up experience, although I suspect my personality would have been well-suited to it. It might have made my teenage years easier too — a safe place into which to pour those wild energies and the longing for devotion, purpose, “specialness,” which Shapton writes about. But what happens to the athlete who, despite great discipline and effort, does not achieve her original goals? By the age of nineteen, Shapton knew she would never make Canada’s Olympic team, despite intense devotion to her sport. There are limits that we all have to confront. If you’ve devoted five to six hours a day, six days a week, for most of your teenage years, training for a race you’ll never get to race — what then?

Well, I suppose there could be a sense of aimlessness. Or perhaps, instead, you find ways to transfer your disciplined routine to other aspects of your life. Shapton is a very successful writer, artist, and designer. This is not something that just happened, I am sure of it.

I have more to say on the subject, but will have to leave it here for now. I’m off to a soccer game with a child, aged ten, who seems inclined to pursue competitive sport one way or another, who thrives on disciplined routine, and who can’t wait for school to start tomorrow. I wonder, as I read this book, whether I am reading a story that might in some way be hers, in the years to come. I wonder, as I read this book, how my child will be shaped by her participation in competitve sport, with the demands on her time and energies, and the pressure to perform.

New space, new year
Word of the (past) year: work/play

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