May 20, 2016
Searching for a gift for your Olympic Trials qualifier? Look no further… Hot off the press, released this month by Chronicle Books, is Lisa Congdon’s The Joy of Swimming. The subtitle says it all: A Celebration of Our Love For Getting in the Water. Less a story than a piece of graphic art between two covers, Congdon’s book invites you to dip in and out, immersed in a swimmer’s world.
From colorfully painted portraits to back-in-the-day photographs to loads of did-you-know nuggets, all delivered in a dreamscape style, this is one of those books that’s required on every swimmer’s bookshelf. It’s as accessible to an age-grouper as it is charming to the oldest Masters swimmer.
This is the work of a fine artist and illustrator; it’s about the visual presentation more than the prose. And Congdon is a serious talent with the brush. Indeed, a look at her website (lisacongdon.com) reveals a client list of bold faced names – from Harvard to the MoMA to Martha Stewart Living. She’s also a swimmer’s swimmer with an identity dipped in chlorine, just like the rest of us. For her, it began in Northern California, in San Jose and a summer team called the Shadowbrook Splashers. She includes a few 70s sepia toned photos from those days, which look pretty much exactly like my memories of the Overlee Swim Club in Arlington, Virginia, where my own life was first swallowed up by swimming.
For Congdon the joys of swimming include the ephemera that’s so familiar to anyone who spent his or her formative years at swim meets and endless practices. There’s the chicken nugget sized medals (shoeboxes of which still sit in my parent’s basement); the rainbow of disposal summer meet ribbons that are never disposed of; the parkas; the evolution of goggles and suits and caps.
You’ll find gracefully painted quotes (Rumi, Emerson, Dara Torres) alongside animal comparisons (sea otters and polar bears can both smoke the fastest human swimmers on earth) and throwback swimming periodicals (Swimming Times? Spalding’s Athletic Journal?), but more than anything else you’ll find a compassionate collection of short bios on swimmers. There are the requisite old school icons like Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams, but more interesting are the tributes to everyday swimmers young and old that define our sport in the most personal ways.
In those short profiles Congdon manages to capture the essence of swimming. It’s personal. Olympic medals and world records and eternal recognition come to an infinitesimal few. For the rest, i.e. for pretty much all of us, the joy of swimming has nothing to do with those achievements. It’s about being immersed in something, in the most literal and profound way.
It’s a way that Congdon has felt and lived and captured so well, in this essential swimmer’s book…