Live Through This

Swimming Lessons

I trained, ate, traveled, and showered with the best in the country, but I wasn’t the best; I was pretty good.


November 2011. My mother comes to visit me in New York for a week. The quilt I fling across the guest room bed is coming apart, fraying at the edges. She insists on repairing it, so I lug my sewing machine out of the closet and set her up at the dining room table. As she mends the quilt, I ask her if it hurt her feelings when I asked her not to watch me swim when I was in high school.

“I guess I thought it was a teenage thing,” she says, looking over her glasses at a seam. “I wonder how old I was then?”

I walk to the kitchen to reheat some takeaway coffee and say over my shoulder, “I was around 14, so you must have been, what, 44?”

“…but I might have watched anyway.”

“What do you mean, you might have?” from the kitchen.

“If I wanted to see how you did, I’d watch from where you couldn’t see me.”

“You did?”

“Sneaky, huh?”

I watch the coffee heat and think about this. I smile.

Back in the dining room I hand her some coffee. “I never use that machine, but I will if you show me how to thread bobbins.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” she says, “but you have to thread carefully, because if you don’t it will go all bohol-bohol.”

I ask her about the other swimmers’ parents.

“I remember all of the other parents thought you were very pretty and very fast.”

“Which were you more proud of?”


During my wedding reception, my mother, dressed in a white toga with a garland crowning her head, performed a dance to Elvis’s “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” Her lips moved silently to the lyrics as she swayed around me and James, perched on a coffee table. She gracefully placed leis around our necks. At the conclusion of her dance, as the applause was petering, she bowed and cried out, “See! Leanne’s not the only talented one!” Everyone laughed, but I exchanged a quick glance with James. What? He looked back at me, eyes wide.

At the end of her visit I wake my mother early to drive her to the train station. She throws back the covers when I whisper to her; her limbs—in the dark, in her underwear—look like my own. Earlier in the week she borrowed a dress of mine to go to the Glamour Women of the Year Awards; she tried on several before deciding on a vintage black-and-yellow one. I was both reassured and weirded out that they all fit and suited her, even though her body is a different shape, and much shorter than mine.

Downstairs the blue light filters through the windowpanes as I put the kettle on, and make weak, milky tea for her Pirelli thermos. When we step outside, the air has a thin, mauve cast, is cold as lake water. ♦

Excerpted from Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. Copyright © 2012 by the author, reprinted courtesy of Blue Rider Press.


1 2 3 4


  • Anna F. October 17th, 2012 3:11 PM


    ok actually reading it now.

  • bugaleeto October 17th, 2012 3:34 PM

    This was SO therapeutic. Thanks Rookie. <3

  • Abby October 17th, 2012 3:46 PM

    That was… really good.

  • Maddy October 17th, 2012 4:13 PM

    So great. I was/am extremely impressed, but it makes more sense because she’s a “profesh” author. I quit fencing this year and it was a similar situation (except I wasn’t as good) because I trained with people who were 1st and 2nd in the country and won World Cups (like championships, but there’s more than 1 a year). I quit because my coach told me I couldn’t move up to the next level for only 2 days (and because I wasn’t good enough) because I’d have to travel the country and not be allowed to fence the best kids because it would be too easy for them and too humiliating for me. That hurt. But this was really beautifully written and great to read.

  • FloralFeminist October 17th, 2012 7:18 PM

    great article!

  • GlitterKitty October 17th, 2012 8:52 PM

    CANADIANS!!!! YAY!!! That was a very good article. It seems like such a big part of your identity leaves you when you leave an activity. And I swam at the Etobicoke pool once for a school swim team meet. I was on the team for only 2 years because the water was cold and I didn’t like swimming on Sunday night ( the only practice time we could get)

  • llamalina October 17th, 2012 9:25 PM

    I really love this! When I was younger, my parents wanted me to get into competitive swimming, but I refused because I’ve seen how hard some of my swimmer friends train, and I could never be like that.

    Also happy that this author is Filipino! I could tell when she said “bohol-bohol”, which means something like “tangled” in English. (:

  • Bree October 17th, 2012 10:39 PM

    This is amazing! I love your descriptions of practice, and “mentally swimming” your races–both are my reality every day, even though you were much better than I will ever be capable of being. One thing I’m curious about is why so many Rookie writers are swimmers! Specifically, I can think of you and Arabelle, though I remember coming across many more swimming stories, especially this month! Anywho, I haven’t read your book, so I don’t know what you’re up to now, but if you aren’t currently swimming, but would like to, I suggest joining a Masters team (great way to get into/stay in shape and compete, unofficial motto is “you can’t make me” (for all of the kicking haters), and, of course, it’s SWIMMING!). Best wishes!

    • Anaheed October 18th, 2012 2:21 PM

      Leanne’s not a staff writer—this is an excerpt of her book Swimming Studies (which I HIGHLY recommend; all of it is as good as what’s here, and it includes her gorgeous drawings). But our own Krista is a swimmer too!

  • justbouton October 18th, 2012 12:07 AM

    “When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar.”

    Yes. This is how I feel when I come back to a sport (soccer, in my case).

  • SweetThangVintage October 18th, 2012 12:28 AM

    My couch drinks sooooo much diet coke.

  • Jessica W October 18th, 2012 3:38 AM

    I really relate to this (although I wasn’t that great a swimmer haha).
    I used to swim just about every day for not far off a decade. It was utterly consuming. It was all I would think about… All I could think about.
    It wasn’t just an activity. It was a culture… People, rituals, rules, so on…
    Every morning I woke up thinking “Do I need my togs? Have I got swimming today?”
    But something drove me to keep going.
    I finally stopped one day and it was SO SURREAL.
    This captures the life of a swimmer perfectly <3

    The Lovelorn

  • Mary the freak October 18th, 2012 2:12 PM

    It’s not that I am a swimmer. Or sporty anyways. But this…

    This is impossible to describe.

    This is so much art. I love this. I just love it.

  • Sooophie October 18th, 2012 2:57 PM

    Perfect. I so get you. I went trough the exact same thing (except for the high olympic level) but I just recognize everything you wrote about. It’s just perfect.

  • mdoodle13 October 18th, 2012 3:03 PM

    I’m a competitive swimmer in a slump right now. This was soooo wonderful and soooo true to my own life.

  • Isabelle97 October 18th, 2012 3:35 PM

    hey, I love how on rookie you can still enjoy reading articles even if you have never experienced anything like what’s being described. It must be because of the consistently great quality of the writing- a lot of crappy girls mags rely on the shared experience thing to cover up boring writing- like omg, I hate my elbows too, this mag is now my lifeline- but with Rookie I’ve never found this to be the case- the writing’s always relatable AND interesting :D anyways, love you guys! Loved this and I’m gonna go check out the book!

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 11th, 2012 10:45 AM

      I agree, Isabelle97! Rookie is rad in every way possible. <3

  • JAK October 18th, 2012 11:00 PM

    As a former swimmer, I can certainly relate to this story, it’s an all consuming sport. I joined at a young age and although I was never the best out of my friends I really enjoyed the practices and the camaraderie between my teammates and I. And I appreciated that although I was hard of hearing my coaches were able to work with me by developing hand signs and having the buzzer loud enough so I could hear it. Thus making it easy for me to get up on the block and only worry about one thing, which was to swim my best. And even though I quit freshman year, when I think back on my younger self I almost always see myself as the swimmer and modern dancer that I was! So a big thank you Leanne for this excerpt, for reminding me about how I felt, and for making me want to give swimming another try!

  • fomalhautb October 20th, 2012 4:48 AM

    It scares me that I can relate to this and that so many other people do. I always felt like I was the only one who felt this way because I hardly ever talked to anyone about this. I always felt so ashamed that I had decided to give up something I was so passionate about, all because I felt I was never good enough. And that I had wasted a large portion of my life, dedicated hours of my life to the rigorous training sessions I put myself through. It’s just so surreal??? And nostalgic, of course …

  • mollywobbles October 20th, 2012 2:37 PM

    I’m not much of a swimmer, but I am from a town near Leeds, England and I moved to Ottawa last month so that’s pretty cool :)

  • TheScreenKiller October 22nd, 2012 6:43 PM

    Ah, Toronto…
    Canadian Pride woo-hoo.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 11th, 2012 10:44 AM

    This was such a powerful, beautiful, well-written piece.