A few years ago I fell in love with Leanne Shapton’s sparse, beautiful book about jealousy Was She Pretty?, but as a fellow writer and former competitive swimmer her new illustrated memoir Swimming Studies particularly resonated with me. Growing up in a suburb of Toronto, Shapton spent countless hours in the pool; hard work that led her to qualify for the Canadian Olympic Trials in 1998 and 1992. It was that meticulous attention to detail that helped her carve a career an artist, illustrator, and writer, as the former art director of the New York Times op-ed page and Saturday Night Magazine and co-founder of J&L Books.
BT – I was caught off guard by how moved I was by your book. I actually started crying, and I mean that in the best way. It just made me remember this girl who I was who I’m not any more. I don’t know if grieving is the right word for it, but I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with it and reconciled the two things. Do you feel like writing the book was a way to work through that for yourself?
LS – Definitely. How you just put it: the girl who you were who you aren’t any more. That life as a swimmer was so far removed from my life now. I was just underwater, a jock; well an introverted, introspective jock. I still have this pride and vanity about being a swimmer and yet I don't do it any more so I wanted to figure out where it sat. In the book, I write about how I’ve always searched for that kind of absorption and focus again, and I felt so flaky not having that kind of discipline in my life and it took 20 years to find it again. I think this book helps me go: Okay, it's not going to be an athletic discipline anymore, it’s going to be something different. And so, if I do more of that I’ll feel more like that girl I used to be.
BT – I was wondering how the book came about, because the story is so visual and the physical book and illustrations are really beautiful. Did you see it first in a visual way or through words?
LS – It kind of started as a screenplay. I saw it purely visually. I saw the scenes. I saw the scene on the bus, the scenes swimming, the scene with the booger suspended in the water, the blue dawn, and the training camp in Barbados, all of these things were so vivid, way more vivid than the competitions. And yet I couldn’t paint it, I couldn’t photograph it, I couldn’t figure out how I would do it and so I thought I’ll try and write it. I had seen it in these series of landscapes. And then it got into inner-landscape and inner-monologue, and it was a huge experiment to see if I could write it as clearly as I saw it.
BT – How did you remember those little details? Because I only remembered once you wrote about them. I mean I kept journals but apparently not about the right things. It was more about, like, this stupid guy was who I had a crush on. Did you keep journals when you were swimming?
LS – I actually always did but they got a little more vivid in the '90s when I was 16, 17, and 18. But I don’t know how I remember that stuff. I think that's what I fell in love with about the sport. The parties on Saturday with the swim team and the guy with the two shar-peis, the way he parted his hair, there’s so many vivid memories about things like that. I think because I was being socialized by swimming, all of those things made an impression. Like the guy licking his arm, I thought, oh I have to learn this to be a human being. And those details in practice and in the pool I remember because I wasn’t looking at anything else. It’s like a tunnel, it’s so blinkered, I thought and felt things sensitively because there was nothing else to look at. Except for snot and tiles and the conditioner, and those smells and the yellow cinderblock wall. I don’t know why those things made such an impression, they just really did. It might also be because I was finding myself good at something for the first time in my life and so I was really acutely aware of fitting in somewhere and cherishing something.
BT – So what was it like to walk away from something so all consuming? For me, I quit my sophomore year of college after being on a team since I was 5 years old. Quitting was easy because I was so burnt out and I knew after all that I was never going to be a great swimmer and I was ready to see what else I had to offer. But giving up the one thing you’re good at is tough; it was my identity for so long. I underestimated how difficult it would be afterwards, I actually got pretty depressed.
LS – The first time I quit in 1989 was hard because I had gone up a level in training and I was on this track leading up to 92 trials, and I was doing really well. That’s when my ranking in Canada was the highest. Then my parents said we’re moving to the country and it was 1 ½ hours away from the pool so that made it pretty impossible for my mom to drive me to morning practice. So the only option was living with another family. I didn’t really make close friendships on the swim team and it just seemed inconceivable to me that I would do that. It was an easy decision not to make that sacrifice. In that way it was easy to walk away.
BT – How did your coach take it?
LS – Those memories are quite blurry. I remember his belief in me, which was very much "you’re going to be great." I remember he told me that after practice one night and I thought: wow, coming from this American who had been to the Olympics? When I quit the assistant coach said, "Mitch doesn’t want to talk to you." And that was a shitty feeling.
Following that I was resolved to get into art and go to an arts high school. At the same time, I would go home and do resistance band training at night and so I would be, like, my body knows how to do this but my heart wants to do this. So there was this huge split. I remember my dad saying, "do you want to see a psychiatrist?" after one incident bicycling through a blizzard. I think something separated. It was a difficult two years.
BT – But then you got back into swimming a couple years later?
LS – I decided I would take the year off before going to McGill and train again so I could quit on my own terms. I didn’t really see it as that way then, but I think that’s what I was doing. I felt as though when I quit I was 15 I was so much a child and this thing happened to me and I didn’t have the will to go “this is what I want.” So I went back, trained again, got to around the same times, went to the ‘92 trials and didn’t do great. My diaries from that time say some things like: I watched Lethal Weapon 3 right before my race, bought the new Cowboy Junkies. I was really into the cultural stuff. I rented a studio in Toronto. I was 18 and taking on commissions because I was working at an art supply store so there was another split. Quitting after the ‘92 trials was a lot less traumatic because I had who I was in place a little bit more. But it was lot to go through again. It’s almost like going to back to a relationship, a love relationship that isn’t going to last, but we’re like “we got back together…”
BT – In the book you have photographs of your amazing vintage bathing suit collection and little stories about where you wore them. When did you start collecting vintage suits? Where do you get them?
LS – This is actually only half of my collection. There was a really good vintage store in Toronto called Black Market and they had this little annex called Black Market Basement where everything was cheaper. I found some excellent bathing suits. One was this black string voile bikini. It was one of my first bikinis and that’s when I realized how a bikini works on the body, how a bikini is supposed to look. Until then I was wearing tanks. But once you figured out how they worked, it just clicked, and I wasn’t afraid of bikinis anymore. Before that I was intimidated by the bikini, I just thought: why bother you’re wearing a bra. You can also find stuff on Etsy and Ebay, and I found some good suits that way, but mostly I like to buy them in stores so you can actually feel the fabric. I bought some good ones at Zachary’s Smile. I wind up cutting out a lot of the boob part, the underwire. That was another thing: understanding that these suits were not always meant to be swum in, they were what you wore beside the pool. You get in and they’re so heavy, they take forever to dry.
BT – These ladies were not swimming.
LS – No, they were wearing support garments.
BT – What about body image and growing up swimming? For me I was totally comfortable in a bathing suit but for my prom dress I had to get, like, a special ordered dress with this panel in the back, and I was so embarrassed I couldn’t fit into any dresses. I feel like now I’m finally comfortable with my body.
LS – I would just dress like a boy, T-shirt and sweatshirt, because that’s all that looked right in my head. And then there was the watershed bikini moment where I got that you can dress like a girl. You’ve got those swimmer shoulders; it’s a classic thing.
BT – What’s your favorite pool in the world? You’ve swum in so many.
LS – I love the pool in Berlin in Mitte. It’s from the 1930’s and it was used as a training pool for the swimmers in the 1936 Olympics and it’s so beautiful. And I love the Yale pool. We had a duel meet between McGill and Yale and went down in a van and I don’t remember who won. I got a sense of America that probably seduced me because I wound up moving the next year. And I just had never seen a pool like that, it felt so classically collegiate, the wood was dark, the tiles were that dark blue, and it was small. It’s really a special pool.
BT – Do you still dream about swimming?
LS – Always. Just being in the water, hooking my arm over a lane line, being in the water submerged up to my neck or just swimming and being horizontal in that position.
BT – Have the dreams changed as you get farther away from that part of your life, or is it the same feeling? Mine have changed so that when I was swimming competitively my dreams were, like, I was swimming but it felt like flying. Now my dreams are: I’m supposed to swim the 400 IM and I’m in terrible shape and I can’t do it. My dreams about swimming now are awful.
LS – You’re right, they can be social anxiety dreams, performance anxiety dreams. I think now it’s swimming as metaphor instead of swimming as literal state. That’s how it has changed, definitely. But it’s so familiar, even if it’s an anxiety dream it's like, "here I am again, racing."
BT – How has swimming affected your approach to art?
LS – I realized how I work is in series, which is a lot like laps: doing something 100 times or 200 times, and 4 of those things might look okay. So the repetition and the practice was part of how I trained as a swimmer because it’s just counting. And so now counting for me is quite important and I realized that’s how I can sink into a project, and lose that self-consciousness. And that’s a huge thing about doing work and whether the work is athletic or artistic you just have to be un-self-conscious and not be afraid to do 10 bad drawings the way you can do 10 lazy laps and then make up for it.
BT – I’m fascinated by artists who swim. Do you know of any? I know Tracey Emin does and my boss (Julian Schnabel). I don’t know if you can tell in their work, but there must be some commonality there.
LS – Rem Koolhaas is a huge swimmer. I wrote to him when I was writing this book to get a list of his favorite pools. He prefers public pools to hotel pools. Thomas Demand is a huge swimmer, Lucian Freud, Roni Horn and Reineke Dykstra. Margaret Howell the fashion designer swims regularly.
I think there’s something about a different state, where your breathing is different, your thinking is different, what you see is different. I mean it's always interesting to me how blind you are as a swimmer. And so as a visual artist it’s interesting that it’s more of an enforced sort of blindness, you limit what you look at. I can’t run because there’s too much to look at. I love that so much of swimming is sensory deprivation and you’re so alone, and I love that, even if you’re swimming with other people, you’re alone.
Bianca Turetsky is the author of the YA series The Time-Traveling Fashionista. The second book in the series will be released Sept 18 by Poppy/Little Brown. She also works for the artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel. You can follow her on twitter or Facebook.