in: Fitness, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: October 1, 2021

Podcast #629: Why We Swim

If you’ve been swimming since you were a child, you probably don’t think too much about it anymore. But when you take a step back, the human act of swimming is a pretty interesting thing. You weren’t born knowing how to swim; it’s not instinctual. So why are people so naturally drawn to water? And what do we get out of paddling around in it?

My guest today explores these questions in her book Why We Swim. Her name is Bonnie Tsui, and we begin our conversation today with how humans are some of the few land animals that have to be taught how to swim, and when our ancestors first took to the water. We then discuss how peoples who have made swimming a primary part of their culture, have evolved adaptations that have made them better at it. We discuss how swimming can be both psychically and physically restorative and how it can also bring people together, using as an example a unique community of swimmers which developed during the Iraq War inside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. We also talk about the competitive element of swimming, and how for thousands of years it was in fact a combat skill, and even took the form of a martial art, called samurai swimming, in Japan. We end our conversation with how swimming can facilitate flow, and some of the famous philosophers and thinkers who tuned the currents of their thoughts while gliding through currents of water.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • When did humans start swimming? Do we know?
  • Why aren’t humans and other primates instinctive swimmers?
  • How does our body react to being in the water?
  • The power of just hearing the sound of water
  • The enduring appeal of swimming for health and fitness
  • Swimming’s ability to bring people together 
  • Swimming as a martial skill 
  • Why is swimming the most-watched Olympic sport?
  • Famous regular swimmers — Thoreau, Oliver Sacks, Yo-Yo Ma, Fred Rogers, and more
  • How swimming gets you into the flow state

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of why we swim and person hand in the water.

Connect With Bonnie

Bonnie’s website

Bonnie on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you’ve been swimming since you were a child, you probably don’t think too much about it anymore, but when you take a step back, the human act of swimming is a pretty interesting and weird thing. You weren’t born knowing how to swim and it’s not instinctual, so why are people so drawn to the water, and what do we get out of paddling around in it? My guest today explores these questions in her book, Why We Swim. Her name is Bonnie Tsui, and begin our conversation today with how humans are some of the few land animals that have to be taught how to swim, and when our ancestors first took to the water.

We then discuss how peoples who have made swimming a primary part of their culture have evolved adaptations that have made them better at it. We discuss that swimming can be both psychically and physically restorative and how it can also bring people together using as an example, a unique community of swimmers which developed during the Iraq war inside of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. We also talk about the competitive element of swimming, and how for thousands of years, it was in fact a combat skill. It even took the form of a martial art called Samurai swimming in Japan. And we end our conversation with how swimming can facilitate flow, and some of the famous philosophers and thinkers who tuned the currents of their thoughts while gliding through the currents of water. After the show’s over, you’re gonna wanna go for swim, but also make sure to check out our show notes

All right, Bonnie Tsui, welcome to the show.

Bonnie Tsui: Thanks so much, Brett. I’m happy to be here.

Brett McKay: So you just recently published a book called Why We Swim, where you explore the history, the culture and even the philosophy of human swimming. What got you thinking about this topic and going in a deep dive on swimming?

Bonnie Tsui: I always think about, as a journalist, that there’re so many things to write about, and really only very few things that someone should write a book about [chuckle] because books take so long, and really are such an investment of time and energy and just creative life. And so… My parents met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong, and we just had a very life-long relationship with water and with swimming, and it’s something that’s… That had always been a part of my life through swim team, through lifeguarding, and just swimming on my own after college and having it be, of course exercise, but also over the years and understanding that that role that swimming played in my life kept evolving. At first, it was something that my parents made sure we learned so that we would not drown. It’s just a basic survival thing. And then over the years, it has taken on all of these different resonances and meaning and a way of finding well-being, competition, community, flow, all those things that I address in the book, and that’s how the book is structured. The question is why we swim? And the way the book is organized is these five different ways of answering that question.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about, let’s go back to why we swim from just the very… Going all the way back to the end, it’s… When you think about it, it’s weird that humans swim ’cause we’re land animals. But do we know when humans started saying, “Hey, we can get in the water and move our arms and legs and not drown?”

Bonnie Tsui: The funny thing about wake, is that it disappears. [laughter] So we don’t really have… It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that happened for our species, obviously. And so where I approached it was from a little bit of an oblique angle by looking for the earliest evidence of human swimming, so it’s not necessarily that that was when it happened, because we’ve been clearly doing it for so much longer than any evidence that has stuck around. And earliest evidence dates back to about 10,000 years and it’s these cave paintings and what’s called the Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara. And I wanted to go to paleontologists to see what sort of archeological evidence we have of animals and humans swimming, and I ended up going to this pretty well-known dinosaur hunter named Paul Sereno, and the funny thing with him is that he was a dinosaur hunter for most of his career, and then he stumbled upon this amazing trove of, I guess you would call it two human civilizations that lived along the edge of this Paleozoic system in the Sahara thousands of years ago.

They are one of the most, the biggest archeological record of our Neolithic time period of humans living by water. So the waters in this Paleozoic system were pretty stable over thousands of years and such that these two groups of people lived along its shores fished, dived for shellfish, probably swam. And in fact, one of the most compelling burials that he discovered, his team discovered, was this… What they called a triple burial of this mother and two children with their hands intertwined, and so the speculation is that they drowned and then were posed in a burial after they died.

Brett McKay: So swimming about 10,000 years ago, about. We don’t know for sure, but it sounds like the reason why humans started swimming, it was basically for… They were going for shellfish, there was basically food and that was the reason?

Bonnie Tsui: Right, so it makes perfect sense that they found new sources of food, they found new lands to settle. And to be clear, that 10,000 year mark is just the earliest evidence we have. It’s just… Our human swimming ability goes back much further than that. We just don’t have evidence of it.

Brett McKay: What’s interesting, you highlight this too, is that most land animals have an instinctive swimming ability, like elephants… I’ve seen elephants swim or horses. But humans don’t have that instinctive ability, we have to learn it. Do we have any idea… And it’s not just humans, it’s other large primates, chimpanzees, gorillas.

Bonnie Tsui: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Do we know why that is?

Bonnie Tsui: We don’t really know why but it is an interesting case to examine because when you see other animals from birth, they have an instinctive ability to swim. Dogs, cats, they hate it of course but they can do it, even bats can swim. Bats can swim really well. You can look up… You can really fall into a YouTube hole [laughter] finding animals and how they swim. So yeah, humans and other large primates are… Higher order primates are unique in that we have to be taught how to swim. We have to learn and most terrestrial mammals can swim from birth. We can watch dogs and cats and all kinds of animals do it. And it’s strange that we alone are pretty unique in that. And so along with that ability, we pass on the stories of why it’s important and how to do it and all these different ways of storytelling that are so… Also unique to humans. And it’s really, I think… It’s strange because we are so tied to the land but the water calls to us and so we have to figure out how to conduct ourselves in it and how to survive in it and also how to find joy and pleasure in swimming. It’s something that we… You see kids, you see babies even just playing in the water and you know that it’s something fun and something that we don’t forget when we’re older.

Brett McKay: So swimming for humans, it’s a cultural phenomena. It’s a cultural technology that we pass on from generation to generation.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, exactly. It’s a body of cultural knowledge that we pass on like so many other things and that’s why we humans are so successful on our planet, is that we have this cultural gene co-evolution, where we pass along not just our genetics but the knowledge or the bodies of knowledge that we acquire as larger populations. Smarter, it makes us smarter than any one individual in a lifetime could ever be.

Brett McKay: And so while humans don’t have an instinct to swim, some cultures, some societies have developed such a rich, deep culture of swimming that there is some weird… I wouldn’t say evolution but their bodies have adapted because they’ve swimmed. Because their culture swims so much. Any examples of that, that stand out to you?

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah. In the book I talk about the cultures of Southeast Asia where there are these sea nomads where they have… These populations have lived on the water and houseboats and subsistence fishing for many years. And their traditions have been such that the children learn to swim often before they learn to walk and that their free divers are extraordinary, they can dive down to the bottom of the ocean and have spear-guns and spears to catch fish. And at that depth, they’re negatively buoyant, so they can walk on the bottom of the sea and hold their breath for many minutes. And it’s really extraordinary how they have been able to practice and teach their bodies how to cope with the pressure underwater and also to see better. There have been studies done with the Moken people. They’re one of these tribes of sea nomads where the kids have really excellent underwater vision. You and I haven’t been trained in this way and so our eyes… Our vision is very blurry, tends to be, most humans’ vision in the water is pretty blurry. And yet with a few practice sessions under water focusing on patterns, you can actually train your eyes to see better underwater.

And those are things that you can teach yourself and train yourself how to do, at least on the experiments they’ve done with kids. And then there are the other, not adaptations but genetic changes that have happened with the Bajau people. Again, another sea nomadic population in Southeast Asia where their spleens have been shown to be, I think as much as 50% larger than a related group of inland dwelling people. I think this is in Thailand, I’m gonna say. And it’s not acquired from diving, it’s not that their bodies have been changing from diving, it’s just that they’ve evolved to be better. Their spleens, of course… When you dive underwater, you probably have a a million dive reflexes that your spleen expels all these red blood cells around your body so that you have more oxygen and become more efficient at staying underwater for longer. And with the Bajau, it wasn’t that it was only in people who dove, it was this entire population had this genetic… Had evolved to be better at free diving. So I find all of these, both the adaptations and also the evolution to be really amazing and just… These are just tiny snapshots of what’s really… What can go on with our bodies underwater.

Brett McKay: Alright. So we started swimming basically to survive, get food. If you live near the waters, cultures had to learn how to swim because drowning was a real danger, so they’ve had to create this culture of swimming. So that’s one reason why we swim, is survival. But there’s also… As you said, you explore swimming through… Or why we swim through other lenses and one of them is just… I don’t know, wellness would be one. There’s something about water that we’re drawn to, people… You feel like you’re relaxed, it’s soothing. So what goes on? Why is that? What goes on in our physiology and our psychology once we get in or around water?

Bonnie Tsui: One of the amazing things that I just really loved about researching this book, was finding out all of the ways that we… Our brains and bodies respond to water. So just for example, the sound of water, just being around it, listening to it, it boosts our brain’s alpha wave activity. That’s the wavelength that’s associated with calm and relaxation and creativity. And when you immerse yourself, there are all these changes also that happen. And when you’re swimming, of course, you’re increasing the blood circulation around your body and with cold water immersion that your dopamine levels go up and your metabolism speeds up, and just all these really interesting changes that happen. And we feel… We know instinctively that we feel so wonderful when we’re around water. We like…

You could just point to evidence of why people always build houses on the beach, they love to walk by the water, they love to look at it, there’s something about that that does… It does something to our brains, it does something to our moods, and we are wired to respond to these set points in the environment it’s something that the science writer Florence Williams has written, and I love that phrase, that we are… That we’re programmed to respond to blue and green set points in the environment, it’s just that we somehow know that water is beneficial to us, and that we wanna get into it, and it’s like you see all of the… In the summer, now it’s… You see everyone flocking to the beach and it’s totally all the animals going to the watering hole, it’s this… It’s not just for survival, but it’s also something special beyond that.

Brett McKay: And in this section, what I love is you find these stories of people who they found… They highlight the fact that water is restorative, that can heal the body and the soul. Were there any ones that stood out to you in particular?

Bonnie Tsui: Sure. In the wellbeing section of the book, the anchor character there is Kim Chambers, and she is… For those of you who don’t know, she’s a pretty accomplished long distance swimmer, and she was the first woman to swim from the Farallon islands 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco to San Francisco, that’s shark infested waters. And she did that, but she only started swimming several years before because she had had an accident and then had almost lost her leg and was rehabbing her body and re-learning how to walk, and started swimming as part of that rehab. And then discovered that she was just freakishly gifted at cold water, open water swimming and endurance swimming, long distance marathon swimming. And so she started to swim with the Dolphin Club in San Francisco, which is a pretty historic swimming and boating club here. And she noticed that there was more feeling in her leg, her damaged leg and leg nerves had started to regenerate at a faster rate, and she was asking her doctor, she said, ” Is there, isn’t there some… Does it make sense if I have this theory that the cold water stimulates nerve growth or nerve regeneration?” And so they said, “Yeah, that totally makes sense.”

And so I went to some scientists and said, “What is this theory? Is there any evidence for it?” And they said, “Absolutely, it stimulates,” coldwater immersion and exercises stimulate increased circulation of your blood and oxygen around the body and can reach possibly nerves that haven’t been getting as much blood flow and because you’re… When you’re in cold water, of course, the blood goes from your extremities to your core to keep you warm, and then when you have warmed yourself up after the swim they… That redistribution of blood goes back to your extremities again, it’s like boosting that circulation that really helped her, she thinks and this sort of science supports that that could be true. And then she had become this extraordinarily accomplished marathon swimmer and has a bunch of world records and has joined The Explorers Club, she’s a real… Just having swimming be this thing that helped her to basically be reborn in a pretty significant way changed her life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, the point about cold water immersion, I think it’s interesting that cultures around the world have figured out that there might be something to cold water immersion, they’ve developed rituals around it. In Russia, in Russia they cut out the thing in the pond and they just get into the water. It’s like a frozen thing.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah. It’s like a shock to your system. Yeah, in Siberia. Yeah, exactly. It’s like cutting lanes in the ice and going swimming, and that makes you feel alive. [laughter] And you can imagine doing so, it’s terrible, it feels horrible, but it’s… To a lot of people, it feels fantastic, and it makes them feel like they are the most alive they’ve ever been… It’s like this heightened, acute experience of… In a very sensory, every sensory aspect that you could possibly imagine, your eyelashes getting frozen shut, but you don’t have to go to that extreme to experience the euphoria of swimming in cold water.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think the story you just told, I think a lot of people have heard similar stories of individuals who… They had some sort of injury or maybe they were an athlete, they were a runner or a soccer player and they had some… A big injury where they couldn’t do those things anymore, but then they’ve discovered swimming because swimming is so low impact, and it changed their life, it helped them to rehabilitate, to get stronger.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, and it makes a lot of sense when you think about how it’s buoying. You’re not beholden to the forces of gravity the way you are normally. And it just increases mobility and you can move your body in a lot of different ways, more so than you can on land. And it opens you up to, I think, you are more flexible and you can get stronger and… By working different parts of your body, and like you said, it’s low impact and people do it well into their 90s. It’s something that you can do, it’s one of those rare sports that you can do your whole life.

Brett McKay: And even though it’s low impact, it can be high intensity. I’m not a swimmer but the times I get in the pool and I try to… I race my kid to one end, I’m winded. I’m like, that wasn’t very far. That was maybe 25 feet and I’m out of breath.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, you are propelling yourself using your upper body and you’re kicking and it’s just… It is a whole body exercise. I think that’s part of the reason it feels so good, you’re using your whole body and it takes you out of your normal state of being. I think that’s also a huge part of it.

Brett McKay: And I think the other thing that I have trouble with, you say it’s your whole body, you have to think about your breathing too.

Bonnie Tsui: Yes. For sure.

Brett McKay: And I don’t do that. I’m terrible at… [laughter] timing my breathing when I’m swimming.

Bonnie Tsui: You gotta work on your rhythm. You gotta…

Brett McKay: I have no rhythm [laughter]

Bonnie Tsui: We’ve identified the problem. Yes, rhythm is huge when it comes to swimming, not just with breathing, but also with your pacing of all of your limbs, and you have to get all of the pieces moving in the right coordination. Otherwise you’re not really moving yourself through water in a way that feels easy, and I think that’s one of the great tricks of swimming.

Brett McKay: Alright, so swimming can be restorative, as you said relaxes you, can reduce your heart, your pulse, basically lower your blood pressure, and then it can be a great workout, but then another reason we swim, is there’s a community aspect of it. So there’s cultures around the world where swimming is just something you do. I think you highlighted a few of those, like in Japan and Iceland, matter of course, the kids have to learn, you take swimming lessons, not a question. So there’s a community aspect there. But I thought it was interesting in this book, you highlight or you focus on this community that built up around swimming that happened in Baghdad, in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. What’s the story of the swimming community that ended up here in one of Saddam Hussein’s luxurious palaces in Baghdad?

Bonnie Tsui: This is such an interesting story. This is one of my favorites, just because it’s so unexpected. So, in 2008, this foreign service guy named Jay Taylor gets dispatched to Baghdad and he’s a lifetime Foreign Service guy. He was tasked with restarting the Fulbright cultural exchange program in Iraq, and so, he… At the time, Baghdad was pretty… Getting a lot of shelling. There was just a lot of combat activity, and so the Green Zone was centered around one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It was called the Republican Palace, and he had many dozens of palaces around the country, and they all had swimming pools. Imagine just all these opulent pools in the desert, it’s just like the ultimate in luxury and just had diving boards and just these outdoor chandeliers, and so people who were working in the Green Zone could use this pool.

And so it became one of these things that to… It’s a strange trying to adhere to normalcy in a time of war, and so he started swimming, he was a… Had been a lifeguard, taught swimming lessons for his whole life, and he started to swim, and then over time, he began to teach swimming lessons to UN peacekeepers, translators, his own colleagues, locals who were working on the ground, soldiers, that who, for whatever reason, had not really learned to swim or had wanted to be better at swimming, and so he, eventually this community came up around the pool, and then when the Green Zone got moved to a new compound, into the pool there, and the Baghdad swim team grew to 250 people over those two years.

And people come in, people leave, people get moved, their mission ends. But it was this really special many United Nations of people from all over the world. Ecuador, Mexico, Libya, Lebanon, just people, Madagascar, who just came together for this period of time, once, twice, three times a week, four times a week, where they would be able to kinda forget everything and just find the peace in the community in the water. And maybe they didn’t see each other. Maybe they wouldn’t even recognize each other out, sort of out in the compound or out and about in their daily work. But in the water that they found this sense of calm and buoyancy and something that for a few minutes they could forget where they were and just kind of be.

Brett McKay: Now what I liked about that story was how… It was really endearing, ’cause you had these basically adults who basically… I’m not a very good swimmer. But everyone was incredibly supportive, and I just thought that was… I like that. It was heart warming.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah. And it was a team effort. Everybody, no matter what their school level, they started out like blowing bubbles, they started out doing streamlines, they started out treading water, floating and learning just all of the basic lessons of what it is to be safe and then eventually become quite accomplished swimmers in the water. Yeah, it just… And Coach Jay is just a really special guy, and in fact, tonight, he’s back and he lives in Maryland, and tonight, I am guest starring in his wife’s book club for “Why We Swim.” [chuckle] Which is just full circle, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah, what I thought it was interesting, you did a follow-up with some of these people that were part of this swim team, and it seems like swimming has become a part of these people’s lives. Some people went on to teach their kids how to swim, and they said, “I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t been in Baghdad.”

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, It’s… And right, it’s just such an extraordinary and such a unique and intriguing story of how this came to be. And the team sort of atomized after that because you sort of come… But I think thinking about people from all over the world coming together for a short period of time in this pool and then atomizing again to other parts of the world, I think there’s something really beautiful about that too.

Brett McKay: So another lens you use to explore swimming is this idea of competition. So we’re gonna talk about sort of Olympic swimming, but before we do, there’s another aspect of competition, and that’s combat, and you highlight and sort of go through the history, for thousands of years, swimming has been a martial skill in cultures around the world. What are some examples of cultures where they’ve taught swimming specifically as a martial skill?

Bonnie Tsui: Well, the Romans did it. The Egyptians did, Chinese, Julius Caesar was reputed to be an excellent swimmer. [laughter] Just that you can imagine. I think that was like some… Actually, I wanna look… I wanna get this right. I think it’s Assyrian, just these old, very old relief carvings of swimmers who are crossing in battle, crossing a body of water in battle. And it’s just really, it goes back to time immemorial that there’s records of warriors swimming and mythology too, of people who, or characters who were able to triumph in some battle because they were able to swim. And it makes a lot of sense that those… If you think about a lot of martial arts, they kind of carry over now to become a practice that is not for war, but there’s something to be gained from that practice anyway. So if you think about in Japan, I write about Samurai swimming, and so Samurai swimming is Nihon Eiho, is this sort of Japanese classical swimming condition, that’s the Japanese swimming martial art.

And if you go back to the Japanese feudal period, where Samurai clans were protecting different parcels of land around Japan, and depending on where you were in the archipelago, you could be on the coast with the ocean, or you could be on a lake, or a river. And so different Samurai clans had to devise different techniques and different schools of swimming that were specializing in the techniques that would be useful in those bodies of water. So imagine like certain kinds of strokes that are really great for cutting through waves that are breaking on the shore, and then you’re sighting your enemy coming, or if you’re in a very tranquil lake and there’s… You have to be able to see the enemy approaching, or that you have to sneak up on the enemy without creating any ripples to show that you’re coming. And so there were techniques described of treading water in a really quiet way up to your eyes while wearing a lot of armor. [chuckle] And those practices and those techniques and those schools of swimming, those traditions continue today.

It’s the same kind of like master and student hierarchy where you spend years training under the same master. And there are different signs and on a cap that you’d wear of what your rank, what ability, what skill mastery you had accomplished over the years, and you would have a mark or a stripe or something on your cap that would indicate how much you had mastered of the skills that were part of that school of swimming. Actually in the Olympics, they took the Olympics that were supposed to be held this summer, they were planning, Japan was planning on doing a demonstration of Nihon Eiho. And I hope that the Olympics will be on next year, because it’s just a way to reintroduce it to the world of these foundational traditions of swimming that actually really did inform the Japanese national teams like growth and extreme success in the 20th century, and I think it was the Los Angeles Olympics that were the debut of the Japanese National team being so dominant. And it was in part informed by these traditions of Samurai swimming.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was interesting about… ‘Cause I never heard of Samurai swimming, and I thought it was interesting how it carried over. It went from like an actual martial art to sort of a practice martial art, then it carried over into competitive swimming.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And what is competition, really? It’s all of the urgency of battle and survival subsumed into a race. It’s all of that fire, flight, energy and excitement without the threat, of course, of life or death situation, but that’s what we get from sports, that’s what we get from competition, is that thrill in a self-contained, circumscribed way.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and speaking of competition, talking about the Olympics, one of my favorite events to watch when I do watch the Summer Olympics is swimming, because what I love about it, is that oftentimes the result of a race can be just like a 100th of a millisecond. The stakes are always incredibly close because just one little thing cannot…

Bonnie Tsui: Your fingernail.

Brett McKay: Yeah, your fingernail. What have you found with swimming that heightens or can highlight the promises and perils of competition?

Bonnie Tsui: It is funny that swimming, when the Summer Olympics come around every four years, is the most watched sport. People love it, and the rest of the year, at least in the United States, they don’t care.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no one cares.

Bonnie Tsui: I don’t know, it’s strange to me that that is… I don’t know what it is that’s so… Why the Olympics specifically? Maybe it’s just that these swimmers who they don’t hear about or don’t follow the rest of the four years outside of that four year cycle, suddenly are together on the world stage, and they’re able to watch them turn through all of the strokes, fly, back, breast, free, and just all the different permutations, and there’s just the way the Olympics are presented is very heroic. I think swimming is so beautiful to watch, and maybe there is some aspect of that basic survival, life and death thing that is working the back of people’s minds. I don’t know, it’s interesting to… I would love to know what people who tune in only every four years to swimming have to say about it. Like, “Why don’t you, if you love it… If you love it watching it now, what is it about it that draws you to it to more than any other sport?” It’s interesting. I’m curious myself. [laughter]

Brett McKay: Right. Well, so you mentioned in high school when you were a young adult you were a competitive swimmer, and then in the book, you talked about how you’ve gotten back into it in middle age. How has that changed your experience with swimming?

Bonnie Tsui: I loved competing when I was a kid. It was super fun, it was exciting and I really loved… My strokes were breaststroke in the IM and backstroke, I was never a freestyler, but I kinda wanted to see what it would be like to start competing as like a 40-year-old. [chuckle] So I joined the Masters Team and at the same time, my six-year-old joined a swim team, and that’s in the book. And it was like this weird moment of observing him, and it was like this reflection of myself when I was a kid joining the swim team for the first time and then me doing it now, it was strange. It was like, in many ways it felt the same, but also what I ended up realizing is that I love now just swimming practice with my friends. It’s just… It’s really fun, and I have competed a few times with the team, and my coach is always on me to compete more, but I find that I don’t actually want that, I don’t need it, I don’t…

Competition doesn’t have the same allure for me that it did when I was younger. And I’ve talked about how the role of swimming in my life has changed over time, and now I really do feel like the community is such a huge part of it because I swim, in normal pre-pandemic days I would swim four days a week, I’d go surfing in the mornings, and I would go regularly to these practices to swim alongside my friends, and I would have also the more sort of post-school kid drop-off thing, and go to the pool and work out on my own. But I would always see the same people, it’s just like that’s your community, that’s your tribe, and there’s something really comforting about it, that routine, that’s sort of been imploded in this very extraordinary period that we’re living through right now, but I have been fortunate in that I have been able to keep surfing. I’ve been able to swim in open water here in San Francisco Bay, and so it’s adjusting to a new normal. And certainly, we’re gonna be in this for a while, and so it’s interesting how all of my swimming friends have adapted to try to figure out how to get what they need in this time.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like competitive swimming in middle age has brought you back to the community aspect of swimming.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, for sure, yes.

Brett McKay: I think that’s a good… I think that’s interesting. When you started off competing, like, “I’m gonna destroy you” to like, “Oh no, I wanna be with these people. You’re my friends. I like to just enjoy.”

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, you’re my friends. I like my friends. Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: Well, I think some people don’t realize, there’s a community aspect of competitions that I think we often think of competition being divisive, but it’s a great way of bringing people together too.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, you have a team, and even if you might have rivals on other teams, that you still have a comradery with those people.

Brett McKay: So the final lens you use to look at swimming is this idea of flow, which is suiting, ’cause water flows, but I love what you did, you highlight famous thinkers, philosophers, writers who swam, because we have, on the podcast and on the website, we’ve highlighted famous thinkers, writers who are walkers. So Kant and Nietzsche, Thoreau, but you also highlight, there was also scientists, thinkers, writers who instead of walking, they swam. Who are some of those guys?

Bonnie Tsui: Well, a lot of people don’t realize that Thoreau swam every morning when he was at Walden, so that was part of his whole routine there, of being in the woods and being one with the world and all that, and he said… He wrote that that was one of the best things that he did, and so he swam in the pond. I love this question because there are all these secret swimmers who come out of the woodwork are Writers.

Oliver Sacks was famously a swimmer, a great swimmer and he swam great distances, and I love this. There’s a story I love that he told in The New Yorker once where he used to live, well, he lived in New York and many, many years ago he was swimming around City Island in the Bronx. And he saw that there was a house, like a cottage for sale, and so he got out of the water and was wearing his swim trunks. He goes in, he surprises the realtor, gets shown around the house and then he leaves, gets back in the water, and he has just bought a house.

It’s just great, he just mid-swim has somehow acquired a home. And he wrote very beautifully and poignantly of his relationship with water, how he… When he got in the water, he felt he was a stutterer, he felt all of these things kind of slipping away. And he was just like this graceful endurance animal. He would talk about how his dad had this whale-like bulk and he was a big guy. And then when he got in the water, he was just so graceful and elegant and I think a lot of people have that transformation, and I think water can do that for you. Other writers who are swimmers, Zadie Smith is a swimmer. Haruki Murakami is a swimmer as well, and I’d recently found out that Yo-Yo Ma is a swimmer, and that just delighted me so much, ’cause I just like, I admire his music and musicianship and just amazing way of being in the world, like a very generous human. And the fact that he’s a swimmer made me really excited.

Brett McKay: And as you highlight, swimming, there’s something about swimming that can get you into that flow state, or, that writers or artists are constantly, where everything just seems effortless, where you lose track of time. And I guess, I imagine swimming is great for that because you have to get that rhythm, there’s that flow. But then also you have to… It’s almost like an isolation tank when you’re in the water, you can’t hear… The only thing you have is your thoughts.

Bonnie Tsui: Yeah, and so it’s this time that you have with yourself, your own mind, however deep and strange and quirky that is. And you have time to meditate on that, you have time to explore the connections that your mind is just making in ways that are, I think, influenced by the water itself. Just the vocabulary that we use to describe thought, like how it flows, how things wash over us, ideas float around and then get connected, and drifting thoughts. All of this language that we use to talk about how we think in an ideal state, it’s watery language. It’s aquatic language. It’s aquatic imagery and I don’t think that that’s a coincidence. And so I, in this section, the final section of the book on flow, I make some of these connections and I turn to the poets to explain and evoke all of the things that they do so beautifully about swimming, about water, about sort of life and death, and sort of how we move through the world and how water can help us do that.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, the water imagery within the mind, when you said that, it made me think of Bruce Lee, that idea of mind like water, right?

Bonnie Tsui: Exactly. Yeah. Oh my gosh, have you seen the documentary?

Brett McKay: No. We did an interview about a Bruce Lee biography that came out last year and we got into that, but what is the documentary talk about?

Bonnie Tsui: It’s called Like Water and it’s about… It’s a ESPN 30 for 30. It just came out.

Brett McKay: I’ll have to check that out.

Bonnie Tsui: It’s so great. Yeah, it’s fantastic. And I thought about it because it was… He talked so much about how water was a metaphor for all of these things in his life, and he really was such a connector, and I think that… I don’t know what his experience with swimming was at that… The documentary does not go into that, but just how, again, the language of connection, the language of merging and also about the philosophy of being like water, what does that mean? It’s really a terrific documentary film that I just loved watching.

Brett McKay: Did you write most of this book while you were swimming?

Bonnie Tsui: That’s a great question. I wrote the flow section, which is, again, this final section of the book, which is quite different from the first four sections, which are much more reported, character-based, about stories, about other people and sort of amazing adventures and history and all that. The final section is a little bit different because it kinda pulls all of these threads through, together, but is more ideas oriented. And so it’s a different kind of thinking. It’s a different kind of writing. And so I spent a lot of time in the pool. I would get in in the mornings and be like, “Alright, what am I thinking about while I’m swimming?” It really, it did… It was this very strange, meta meta meta. And then I would get out of the pool and I would type things into my phone, and then I would go home and then I would write them. So I did do quite a bit of that last section of the book right in my head when I was swimming, for sure.

Brett McKay: Well Bonnie, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?

Bonnie Tsui: My website, It’s B-O-N-N-I-E, T as in Tom, S as in Sam, And I’m on Twitter as well.

Brett McKay: Alright. Bonnie Tsui, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Bonnie Tsui: Thanks so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Bonnie Tsui. She’s the author of the book “Why We Swim.” It’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website,, and Tsui is spelt T-S-U-I. Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. Got some articles about swimming on there, so check that out. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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