Today is the release of my latest book, The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water. I worked for over a year on this 144 page book all about swimming, and I’m so happy to put it into the world today! I wrote a book about swimming, because swimming changed my life. I have never been an elite swimmer. I just love to swim. Below is my swimming story. Enjoy!
PS: If you are interested in purchasing copy or would like to know more about my upcoming book tour, scroll to the bottom for all the information!
It was a beautiful California day during the summer of 1977, and Queen’s “We Are the Champions” was blasting from someone’s boom box. The Shadowbrook Splashers, my childhood swim team, had just won the championship meet. We danced and screamed in victorious revelry—all of us barefoot, nine-year-olds and teenagers alike—our tan bodies clad only in faded team suits, our mouths red from eating cherry-flavored Jell-O blocks. These were the glory days of my childhood: the summers, the morning practices, the swim meets on Saturdays, the smell of chlorine in everything—especially my hair, straw dry and green from pool water.
I lived for summers, and I spent nearly every available minute of them at the swimming pool down the block from my family’s home in a suburban subdivision of San Jose, California’s Almaden Valley. The pool was not only where I swam, but also where, over luxuriously long summer days, I played in the grass, made friends, ate lunch, read books, and where I learned about disco music and flirting and card games. It was where I first became independent and where I first became aware of my physical strength. And it was always where my mother could find me at the end of the day if I wasn’t home in time for dinner.
Nearly 40 years later, my favorite place to be in the summer (or any time of the year if it is over 70-degrees Fahrenheit) is still an outdoor swimming pool. The smell of chlorine, the feeling of rough poolside concrete under my bare feet, and the sound of water splashing are all so nostalgic for me that even now I am often transported back to the magic of my childhood simply by closing my eyes.
My love for swimming is so My love for swimming is so profound that I decided to write and illustrate a book about it. Here I share my fondness not just for the sport of competitive swimming, but also for recreational swimming—the playful dunking and splashing we did as kids and the meditative laps we swim to work out life’s stresses. Here I pay homage to swimming’s history and some of its great moments. Here I profile fellow living swimmers as young as nine and as old as 92, regular people for whom the water is a source not only of exercise, but of serenity and healing. Here I honor some of swimming’s great heroes, some famous and some until now hidden from the spotlight. Here I recall the sounds, the smells, and the tactile sensations associated with swimming in pools, in ponds, and in the ocean. Here I pay tribute to the activity that has brought so many of us such tremendous joy.
I have been a swimmer since I was a small kid. In April 1976, when I was eight years old, my family moved from upstate New York to sunny San Jose, California. I’d taken swimming lessons already and expressed an interest early that first summer in California to join the neighborhood swim team. My mother took me straight down to the pool and registered me for my first official team sport.
I took to swimming like I took to eating: with a sort of relaxed devotion, as if it was my birthright to be in a swimsuit in 80-degree air next to a pool at all times. I was, in fact, so relaxed about competitive swimming that I never had the intense discipline to become a really fast swimmer as a kid. But being on the team did mean that I got to be in the water and hang out near the pool every single day, which was exactly where I wanted to be.
When I was 11 years old I eventually expressed to my parents an interest in swimming competitively year-round. I was an above-average swimmer, and even at that young age I knew that in order to get further above average, I’d need to work at it. My mother took me to my first practice after school at a more serious year-round team not far from our home. There I lasted only about a week, so exhausted after two hours of practice each day that I could barely stay awake afterward to finish my fifth-grade homework. My parents were not at all pushy when it came to athletics so I chose not to continue. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I began to endure, and eventually love, working hard at training—including the long hours, the exhaustion, and the endless hunger it brings. I have forever been impressed by children and teens who can work out in the pool before or after school and still engage fully in academics. It’s no small feat.
When I was a freshman in high school I was confronted with the choice to join my school’s team, and I decided that sleeping an hour later was more important than getting up and swimming before school every morning. I didn’t swim on my school’s team for the first three years of high school.
But then, during January of my junior year when I was 16 years old, I had a serious skiing accident that left me with a completely torn medial collateral ligament, major surgery, a long pin in my knee, a six-pound cast for several weeks, and a leg brace for months. My orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist recommended swimming and weightlifting as low-impact forms of daily therapy both to build back the muscle mass I’d lost and to loosen the freshly mended (though very tight) ligaments I’d torn. My family had moved to nearby Los Gatos, California, several years earlier, and my parents purchased a membership at the Los Gatos Athletic Club so that I could use the water and the weight room to recover from my injury.
It was that summer at the club’s pool that I fell in love with swimming again. But this time it was in a new way, different than I’d experienced it as a younger kid. Sure, I luxuriated at the club’s pool deck on warm days, but for the first time I also began to appreciate fully the health benefits of swimming, to experience the exhilaration of working hard at something physically challenging, and to find satisfaction in pushing myself to set and meet personal goals. That fall, at the beginning of my senior year, with my knee almost fully recovered, I finally joined the high school swim team and began swimming competitively for the first time in years. I approached it with a new vigor and discipline, going so far as to read books about the power of visualization and working out two times a day to increase my strength. At the end of that year’s season, I placed second in the 50-meter butterfly sprint at the district championship meet—out-touched by the winner by only one one-hundredth of a second.
The next year I went off to college, and another swimming hiatus ensued—this time replaced by college stuff like parties and dates and studying. I graduated four years later, in 1990, and moved to San Francisco where I began swimming laps at the historic Chinatown YMCA on Sacramento Street after work. I swam at various pools in San Francisco during those years. And then in 1996, when I was 28, I heard about a gay and lesbian Masters swim team called the San Francisco Tsunami. In my early twenties I had come out as a lesbian, and I was looking not only to enlarge my circle of friends, but also to get back in the water in a more serious way. This seemed like the perfect opportunity. I had only recently learned of Masters Swimming.
United States Masters Swimming (USMS) is a national membership-operated nonprofit organization that provides membership benefits to nearly 60,000 adult swimmers of all levels across the country on hundreds of local teams. Like many people who approach Masters Swimming for the first time, I was nervous to attend my first practice. I hadn’t swum competitively for nine years and wasn’t sure I could hack it. Could I keep up? Would I still be able to race? I was also worried about joining a team. Was I going to fit in? Would people be welcoming? I decided it was worth a try. I gathered my courage and showed up to practice at Hamilton Pool on Post and Steiner to work out with the San Francisco Tsunami.
On that day, I fell in love with the Tsunami and Masters Swimming. For the first time in my adult life I felt part of something extraordinary. Not only did I experience the health benefits and exhilaration of regular rigorous swimming workouts again, but I met some of the people who would eventually become my second family: my teammates. I also became a better swimmer. By 1997, a year after joining the team, I was swimming far faster than I did in high school, a by-product of excellent coaching and swimming year-round. In 1999, I joined my team’s coaching staff, the only female coach at the time. Over the course of 11 years, I traveled the world to compete in Masters Swimming competitions, including two Gay Games competitions in Amsterdam and Chicago.
A tall, thin, curly-haired woman named Cari joined Tsunami shortly after I did and quickly became my best swim buddy. We were just one year apart in age and swam at almost the same pace. Just a few months after we joined the team in 1997, we traveled to San Diego for our first Masters swim meet. I was so excited (and nervous) about the competition that I literally did not sleep at all the night before the first day of the meet. But adrenaline (and a little Red Bull) saved me—I swam faster than I’d ever swum before, setting two personal bests, only to continue to better my times again and again over the next 11 years. Cari and I were so obsessed with swimming during those years that we would routinely tape any swim competitions that we could find on my VCR and watch the races together, rewinding and rewatching the most exciting parts.
Swimming also carried me through periods of intense heartache. In 2000, I ended an eight-year relationship that had gone terribly bad. I had lost so much weight due to depression after the breakup that I could barely find the strength to get to swim practice. But it was my fellow teammates who expected to see me each evening no matter how I was feeling, inviting me to dinner and feeding me. Those practices and dinners saved me. In early 2001 I used swimming as my motivation to begin to feel like myself again. I signed up for private work with Coach Geoff Glaser to rebuild my physical strength, improve my stroke, and work toward becoming a competitor in distance freestyle, a new goal at the time. By 2003 I had gained back the weight I’d lost and was a faster swimmer than I’d ever been, taking home several medals in both individual and relay events at the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA), including participation on a USMS record-breaking mixed relay team with Geoff and my friends and teammates Brad and Alissa.
Around 2006, after 11 amazing years, I came to a painful realization: I had to take a break from competitive swimming. The years of intense workouts and weekly coaching responsibilities were leaving me feeling tired. Simultaneously, making art had become my new passion and outlet and, increasingly, my new career. I decided that the Gay Games in Chicago that year would be my final event. It was a wonderful way to walk away, ending my swimming career on a high note: there I medaled in every event I swam, taking away six golds and three silvers.
I’ve never stayed out of the pool for long, and over the next 10 years, I kept swimming on my own on and off, the cold water always calling me back in. In 2015, my art career a steady and consistent force in my life, I felt called to begin swimming more rigorously again. I now get myself into the water for a good 3200–3600 yard workout at least three days a week, occasionally swimming with local masters teams.
There has always been a fixed and steady connection for me between art making and swimming. Both of these passions require similar things of me: enormous discipline and a unique form of endurance. They also provide motivation and direction in my life like no other pursuits. I learned that this connection is similar for many other artist/swimmers. When I began working on this book and sharing its progress on social media, scores of artists emailed me to let me know they were also swimmers. In her 2012 book Swimming Studies, artist and writer Leanne Shapton tells a beautiful and visceral tale of growing up a competitive swimmer and how, in part, that experience shaped her life as an artist. Reading Shapton’s book was the first time I realized there was a connection between athletic and artistic discipline.
Like art making, swimming is at the same time a rigorous exercise and also a form of play. It is also for many people a source of energy, vitality, and healing—a theme you will see repeated again and again throughout this book. Water wakes us up and holds us in times of distress or change. It allows the awkward to move with grace, the heavy to feel light, and the disabled to feel accomplished. It is an emotional blanket in times of recovery and vulnerability. It is a form of movement that supports us no matter how large or small we are, how tall or short, how able-bodied or disabled.
In the words of swimming great Gertrude Ederle, “When we’re in the water, we’re not in this world.” May this book provide you with a glimpse into the capacity of swimming to transform, to heal, to empower, to strengthen, and to provide transcendent joy.
I’m going on a book tour! Come see me in any of these places:
April 26, 7-9 pm – California College of the Arts (San Francisco)
May 8, 2-4 pm – Strand Books (NYC)
May 11, 7-9 pm – Powerhouse Arena (Brooklyn, NY)
May 13, 9-10:30 am – Creative Mornings (Minneapolis)
May 17, 7-9 pm – Broadway Books (Portland)
May 24 7-9 pm – University Bookstore (Seattle)