THE SENSORY SOLITUDE OF SWIMMING
Underwater, we can be untethered—in every sense. Natalie Hughes chats to Why We Swim author Bonnie Tsui about the transformative, healing, and meditative power of submersion.
This article was originally published in Off Magazine.
The product of years of research, travel, and interviews with athletes, scientists, and teachers, Bonnie Tsui's Why We Swim is the ultimate deep dive into the subject of swimming and all that it encompasses. Tsui is no stranger to aquatic life. Swim team and stints as a lifeguard and swimming teacher meant the writer’s formative years were largely spent submerged—or, at the very least, poolside. After graduating from Harvard University, Tsui returned to swimming—this time, for fun—and regularly writes about the practice for publications including The New York Times, to which she is a longtime contributor.
“I did not intend for the book to be a memoir,” Tsui tells me over Zoom, from the home she shares with her husband and two young sons in San Francisco’s Bay Area, where she surfs or swims every day. “But I wanted to use the foundation that I had with swimming and my relationship with it to anchor all of these bigger characters and their extraordinary experiences.” The characters Tsui meets, interviews, and swims with in Why We Swim have incredible stories to share. In the course of the book’s five thoughtfully paced chapters— Survival, Wellbeing, Community, Competition and Flow—we meet an Icelandic fisherman with a belief-defying survival story; a 73-year-old Samurai swimming master; and Coach Jay, the diplomatic attaché who inadvertently created a swim club at Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palace pools.
Today, it’s Tsui’s story I’m interested in. “Three decades of swimming, of chasing equilibrium, have kept my head firmly above water,” she writes in Why We Swim. Tsui marks time by water, the good times (she and her husband swam across New York’s Lake George the morning after their wedding), and the bad times. “It’s always been there,’ Tsui says, of swimming. “Through a miscarriage, through the loss of loved ones and through sickness and injury and recovery and rehab, and all that stuff.”
What is it about swimming, about immersion, that is comforting in times of difficulty? “I think part of it is that water really embraces you,” she replies, after a pause. “The envelopment of the water, the buoying, the unburdening of gravity and all the things that you might feel are weighing on you. You're alone with your thoughts in a way that I think can be difficult but also really beneficial.”
“The mutability of it is comforting, too,” she adds. “That oceanic hush [enables us to] disconnect from all the technology that is constantly encroaching on our lives and on our minds and on our attention and on our consciousness. It's exhausting to constantly be on and accessible in that way. You are unreachable and inaccessible [while swimming] in a way that you are not in the rest of your life.”
Swimming is distinct from other sports, in this respect. “It's different from running because many people run with their phones or some kind of device that’s tracking them. You're listening to music, or you're listening to a podcast, and you are still tethered, in a way.” According to Tsui, underwater earphones don’t work very well, so “sensory solitude”—as she calls it—wins out. “I think swimming is a kind of enforced isolation, and that is a good thing. It’s healing for the mind and a balm, also—that quiet.”
Despite its subject specificity, Why We Swim is anything but linear. It’s surprising, twisty, challenging, stirring (on our call, I confess to Tsui that I cried while reading it). I start scribbling notes as soon as I turn the first page, eager to make decisive conclusions, but Tsui dashes my dualistic thinking at every turn. Mindfulness—so that’s what swimming is good for. Tsui quickly proffers a challenge via a quote from sports psychologist Jim Bauman: “They talk about mindfulness, but I think of it more like mindlessness.”
When Tsui writes, “The view from within is what I’m after,” I automatically separate competitive swimming and swimming by oneself. She immediately confronts my black-and-white thinking with the assertion that even in competition, you’re not necessarily competing with others, but rather yourself: “Your chief adversary is the clock and, in this case, the water that you’ve got to work with to beat it.” Tsui wants the reader to open their mind beyond the distinctly Western one-or-the-other mindset—a “false divide when it comes to physical and mental exertions,” she writes, referencing philosopher Damon Young’s theory on the matter.
Whether one calls it mindfulness or mindlessness, focusing on the present is key to feeling centered while swimming. In this way, it’s rather self-effacing, like a shedding of self, I say. “Yeah,” Tsui replies. “It is very self-effacing. It holds your attention to the moment; what is the water doing, and how does my body feel in it?”
She continues, “When you’re swimming in open water, paying attention to the changing conditions is [important for one’s] safety. Because of that, you’re not thinking about all the other stuff that you normally think about. And as someone whose brain is pretty busy, that’s really helpful.”
Tsui’s advice for rookie swimmers wanting to achieve peaceful focus in water? “Just remember how to float. Remember to relax into the water and let it buoy you and trust it’s going to do that. Understanding where your body finds its stasis in the water is helpful, because you’re then not consciously thinking about, or fighting, or actively being afraid of sinking.”
Age helps, too, for more reasons than one. “People tend to swim into their later life without a decline in their ability,” Tsui muses. “It’s one of those rare sports that you can keep practicing very well into later years.” She mentions her friend, Antonio Argüelles, who was the seventh person ever to complete the Oceans Seven challenge—an aquatic feat consisting of seven incredibly challenging open water swims. “He's 62. And he hit his stride in his late fifties,” she says. “He's done epic swims that really take a lot out of your body and mind—you're swimming for a long time, 20 hours, 24 hours sometimes. And so you are enduring not only the physiological effect on your body, but you also have to have the mental fortitude and emotional resources to do it.”
“You have all these experiences that—I don't want to say ground you because that's not the right metaphor when you're in water—but maybe it's a ballast, the thing that gives you some equilibrium or anchor.”
For Why We Swim, Tsui traveled to Tokyo to meet the leading practitioners of Nihon eiho—the incredible art of samurai swimming, originally developed by Japan's ancient warriors in order to traverse water while wearing full suits of armor. This traditional practice offers another great example of how aquatic equilibrium can improve with age. In this chapter, 73-year-old samurai swimming master Masaaki Imamura tells Tsui, “Nihon eiho is for older people who know it is not about racing, or winning, the way it is for young people. We practice, practice, practice, and work very, very hard to get to that place of zen. It is about strength of mind.”
We chat about the strokes Tsui describes while observing the samurai swimming class in Chapter Four—namely, standing swimming (a dynamic treading of water which creates the appearance of gliding effortlessly, swanlike) and another, collective routine, too. “The class would be swimming across the water in three-person formations where they [each] had to be in sync with [the other] person, flanking them,” Tsui explains. “You're being attentive to not just your own body in the water, but someone else's. I think that's really cool.”
Much of swimming’s allure is being part of something bigger than yourself—whether that’s found in the collective synchronicity of Nihon eiho or simply by floating upon an expansive body of water. That’s when the disconnect—or rather, reconnect—takes place. Tsui tells me: “When things have been difficult like [they have been] this last year and a half, to be out there is to tap into this larger organism that is the ocean, [to be] conscious of [a] connection that is bigger than our very, very small, specific, individual self-concerns and worries and anxieties and fears.”
“When I'm out there, [being] held by the ocean that’s going up and down, and drifting around, there is a letting go of some of that stuff. Because when you're taking in this vast body and all the life in it, you can’t help but think: I'm just one speck in this sea.”
Why We Swim, published by Rider, is out now.