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Into the Deep End: 8 Nonfiction Swimming Books

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Summer Loomis

Contributor

Summer Loomis has been writing for Book Riot since 2019. She obsessively curates her library holds and somehow still manages to borrow too many books at once. She appreciates a good deadline and likes knowing if 164 other people are waiting for the same title. It's good peer pressure! She doesn't have a podcast but if she did, she hopes it would sound like Buddhability. The world could always use more people creating value with their lives everyday.

Swimming books have been on my mind a lot lately. This is genuinely odd. Until fairly recently, I had a major fear of deep water and generally avoided water-based activities like the plague. After months of well-tailored swim lessons and DIY exposure therapy in a pool without a deep end, I can now enter a pool without hyperventilating. I would not say I love swimming or being in the water. That would be taking it a bit too far. However, I no longer scrabble my way out of a pool the second I hit the water looking like a terrified house cat. I consider that to be remarkable progress.

How does this relate to reading, you ask? There are some activities I absolutely love reading about, despite not having engaged in them (much or at all) myself. When I heard someone raving about Daniel James Brown’s Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics years ago I thought, really, rowing? Huh. Then I read the book out of sheer curiosity and I could not recommend it highly enough, even as a person who has no interest in water-based sports, the Olympics, or any number of other things that would make anyone think this is the book for me.

More recently, I keep seeing Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers: A Novel everywhere, took notice of Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s drowning prevention initiative, and have finally bumped up Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim on my personal reading list. I also really enjoyed Johnnie Christmas’s Swim Team and highly recommend that for any age of reader. I recently started Schuyler Bailar’s middle grade Obie is Man Enough with a 13-year-old swimmer protagonist. What’s more, I have started the graphic novel series The Adventures of Team Pom: Squid Happens by Isabel Roxas and am loving it. All that is to say that I was (weirdly) excited to write this list.

Below I have some nonfiction books about swimming, divided roughly into titles for kids, titles for young adults, and some for those of us considered adults. Let’s dip a toe in and see how we react, shall we?

Cover of Sakamoto's Swim Club

Sakamoto’s Swim Club by Julie Abery and Illustrated by Chris Sasaki

This rhyming picture book about swimming tells the true story of Soichi Sakamoto and his quest to teach the children of sugar cane plantation workers how to swim on the island of Maui in the 1930s. Without a pool or any special equipment, this science teacher taught children to swim in irrigation ditches. They were such dedicated students that some eventually went all the way to the Olympics. It’s even more amazing when you consider that Sakamoto could not really swim well himself. It is a children’s book adaptation of Julie Checkoway’s The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory if you find yourself wanting to read more. I have recommended this book before as a good kids summer read and am all too glad to have an excuse to bring it up again as a great swimming book!

Cover of The Ocean Calls A Haenyeo Mermaid Story

The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story by Tina Cho and illustrated by Jess X. Snow

This book tells a story connected to the famous female free divers of Jeju island in South Korea. The main character, Dayeon, learns from her grandmother what it means to be one of the famous “sea women” by holding her breath, putting on the necessary tools like a mask and lead belt, and eventually taking the plunge next to her grandmother.

Cover of Annette Feels Free Katie Mazeika

Annette Feels Free: The True Story of Annette Kellerman, World-Class Swimmer, Fashion Pioneer, and Real-Life Mermaid by Katie Mazeika

This is another swimming book based on a true story that readers will absolutely love! Annette Kellerman was born in the 1880s in Australia and loved swimming so much she grew up to earn the title of a real-life mermaid. Read this picture book to dive more into her groundbreaking life. I also really liked this author and am eagerly awaiting getting a copy of Mazeika’s next one: Beulah has a Hunch! Inside the Colorful Mind of Beulah Louise Henry.

Cover of Surfer of the Century

Surfer of the Century: The Story of Olympic Swimmer Duke Kahanamoku by Ellie Crowe and Illustrated by Richard Waldrep

If you know anything about surfing, you know Duke Kahanamoku’s name. Considered the founder of the sport, Kahanamoku was born in 1890 in Hawai’i and became one of the world’s most famous swimmers and a proponent of surfing as we know it today. This book will teach you about his life and also let you revel in the expansive illustrations from Richard Waldrep that accompany the text.

Cover of Swell A Waterbiography

Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth

Landreth is funny and smart and does a lovely job of explaining what it is like to have a more complicated relationship with swimming, which I very much appreciated. She writes that she can remember thinking swimming wasn’t for her, and even after learning, it’s still a skill that “doesn’t quite have the same sticking power as reading.” I completely get this. Landreth goes on, “Some years and lots of swimming miles later, I can still get to that same place of panic [at being out of my depth]. Like one minute the skill was there, the next…gone. And then the particular wave will break, the moment will pass, I’ll shove that feeling away and carry on.” I invite you to enjoy her “waterbiography” as she calls it and to contemplate your own at the same time.

Cover of At the Pond essay collection

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond by Margaret Dabble et al

This collection of essays is both light and full of history at the same time. Somehow it seems like it would make one miss London, although given that I have never been there, you will have to take that for whatever it is worth. I loved the vignettes of the authors’ swimming lives and thoroughly enjoyed observations like, “The pond women are alert and witchy. You find them half naked, clutching quick-dry towels and fuzzy bobble hats…They are mostly older women: a gaggle of different bodies, curves and rolls and wise wrinkles.” There is something so comforting in imagining that gaggle. There are essays here by Nina Mingya Powles, Jessica J. Lee, and Leanne Shapton. The first two authors are already on this list; Shapton has published a book called Swimming Studies that I obviously need to dip into, too.

Cover of Small Bodies of Water

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

This book is also a collection of essays, small bodies of textual water that you can dip in and out of. I assume that is by design. Powles is a writer originally from New Zealand and of Malaysian Chinese heritage. She has published poetry and is such a sensitive observer of the world that I am sure many readers will find something worth pondering over here. If you like this, you should also search out her food memoir Tiny Moons.

Cover of Turning A Year in the Water

Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee

This is a memoir I just stumbled across while doing research for this piece and wonder how I did not read about it sooner. Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author and academic who spent a year swimming in every lake she could find in and around Berlin. At the time, she was working on finishing her doctoral thesis in environmental history. There is something so very strange about the last year of writing a PhD — finishing a highly researched, difficult treatise on a topic that only a very small number of people typically ever see — that lends itself to a kind of personal unmooring. This book is some of how Lee kept herself grounded during that time.

Cover of Why We Swim

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

For some reason, I kept seeing this cover everywhere over the last few years. I took it as a sign from the universe that I would enjoy this, despite my less than stellar history with its main subject. I was right or should I say the universe sent me a reliable signal and I am glad I listened. Tsui is an excellent writer who draws you in from the first pages. Her stories are so fascinating that you hardly notice that you’re following her farther and farther into the deep end. The good news is that it is absolutely worth it.

If you got all the way to the bottom with me, then I assume there was no hyperventilating along the way. Excellent! I also hope there was even a little bit of enjoyment. If you need more ideas, you could try these eight books on swimming from a person who actually likes water. In my case, I am eagerly awaiting a copy of Amelia Possanza’s Lesbian Love Stories: A Memoir in Archives. I have it on good authority that it includes a lot of recreation league swimming. Hope others will dive in with me!