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'Why We Swim' Looks For Answers In People And Places Across The Globe

Humans came from dust, says Ecclesiastes.

But writer Bonnie Tsui reminds us that humankind also once sprang from — and still seeks — water.

Why do we swim? Tsui takes us from ponds to pools to surfers, racers and a few who have survived icy currents, seeking the answer in her new book, Why We Swim.

Interview Highlights

On the story of Iceland's Guðlaugur Friðþórsson

Guðlaugur Friðþórsson is an Icelandic fisherman off the coast of Iceland on a fishing trawler with his crew. And it's calm waters. It's cold. It's 41 degrees and it's in the middle of the night and the boat overturns [on March 11, 1984]. And they're all thrown to the sea. And, you know, in 41-degree water, within 20 to 30 minutes we die from hypothermia. But he did not. Everyone else did. And he ended up swimming six hours in that water to safety on the island where he's from called Heimaey. And when he finally got to hospital, the doctors weren't able to discern his heartbeat or reads his temperature on the thermometer. But he didn't show any signs of hypothermia. And he was only a little bit dehydrated. ...

I liked the story very much, because it is just the distillation of what makes swimming so special for humans. And it's that we have to learn how to swim. We have to teach ourselves how to swim. We're not born knowing how to do it instinctively. And yet there are traces of that evolutionary past still within us — our evolutionary past that came from the sea. And so with Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, it turns out his body fat was two to three times normal human thickness, and more solid. And so he resembled a marine mammal more than a terrestrial mammal. And that saved him. That kept his core temperature warm and stable and he was able to keep swimming.

On her interest in swimming

My family origin story is that my parents met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong. You know, we kind of came from there — as my brother and I like to think about it. And we grew up a swimming family. We grew up at Jones Beach in the pool. Long Island lifeguards. Swim team. And I just always remember feeling more comfortable and happy in the water, actually, than on land. And I do think that that carries over today. I just — that comfort in that, I mean, there's just this sense of magic that you get from being in the water and buoyancy that you just don't have on land.

On water having meditative properties

I does. I have a section of the book that's on flow. And so when I say flow, I mean, of course, the way that psychologist intended, where they're talking about when you're so immersed in the doing of an activity that you are just one with it. You don't notice time passing. And it just happens so organically. ... And I just think that when you are in water, through the rhythm of the strokes, the rhythm and the breathing, that sort of enhances the calm and relaxation in our brain and in our bodies and, so, we enter a different state.

On swimming in cold water

There are benefits to cold water immersion. And there's been quite a bit of research in recent years where, you know, your dopamine levels go up and your blood pressure — the shock of the water, of course, can increase your blood pressure. But then there's, over time, that your cardiovascular system is strengthened from being in cold water, swimming in cold water....

And so we didn't know why exactly. And the science is kind of starting to catch up, but we kind of knew it instinctively, in some way, that there's a wellness aspect to it.

On brown fat

I did not know about brown fat until I started swimming with the Dolphin Club Swimmers in San Francisco Bay. And everyone talked about brown fat. And so, I went to UCSF to talk to the foremost researchers in brown fat. And it turns out that mammals are born with two kinds of fat: white fat, which we all know about, which is the energy stores of our bodies; and brown fat, which actually burns and produces heat energy. We kind of start to lose it as we get older, but there are ways to do what's called "the browning of white fat," which is to kind of turn it into — instead of energy storage — energy burning tissue. And that fat is called beige fat. And so, what kind of encourages the development of beige fat is cold water immersion, cold water exposure and exercise, among other things. But those have been proven to be causing this change in our bodies. ...

And certainly we need a lot of energy stores, the white fat, to make it, to swim long distances, to survive the cold water and to have the endurance. But the brown fat is what produces heat energy. And so, you know, swimmers like Lynne Cox — this legendary cold-water, long-distance swimmer — she's done a lot of experiments. She's participated a lot of studies that show her body to be quite remarkable in that respect.

On competitive swimming

One of the sections of the book is on competition. And because I'm a person who is not, sort of, character-wise, I'm not wired to be a deep competitor who is just chomping at the bit, wants to race, wants to prove myself. I'm actually really afraid of it. I get really nervous. But I wanted to talk to Olympic swimmers, like Dara Torres, and kind of get into the mindset of an athlete who just keeps going back for it. For these competitors, they spend years and years of their lives for the race, for the thrill of competition and the feeling that they get when they are in a race setting. And so, I mean, in the book, I talk about how in a lot of ways a race is sublimation of our survival instincts. It's where we find ourselves being able to try to push ourselves and put ourselves to a test in a way that, in modern life, we typically don't have that anymore — recent conditions notwithstanding. But it's the thrill. It's a thrill. And it is something that makes us feel more alive.

And of course, when we dance closer to this porous state, this place between life and death, between swimming and drowning — that adrenaline puts us in that place and we feel more alive.

On swimming during the pandemic

In the Bay Area, the beaches are still open. And so, I've been getting into Ocean Beach early in the mornings. And I actually had what I call a "wrestling session" with the ocean this morning. So I feel much better. ... I swim early in the morning usually. When there is no pandemic, I'm in the pool in the mornings or in the ocean surfing in the open water. So I get the fix of mine early in the morning because I know that will make me a better person for the rest of the day.

I think that there are a lot of us who are longing for the water right now. Specifically, the swimmers who are just, you know, they get their daily tonic. And I know that from talking to a lot of researchers and scientists for this book that the water is a draw for us no matter what.

And so even if you can't get in the water, if you can walk near it, can look at it, can see it ... Just look at imagery. Watch a surf movie. I mean, those things make a difference for our souls and the way our bodies and brains work. Like we respond to those points in the environment — those blue spaces are what we respond to. And even if we can't get in the water right now, the ocean will be waiting for us, the pool will be waiting for us, on the other side of this.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.