Something primordial exists in swimming for those willing to recognize it, perhaps some residue of an ancestral species instinct to the sea, a subliminal memory of submergence in the amniotic sac, or the proffered suspension of temporal consciousness in its weightless rhythms. Sprawson explores this allure in athletics and in literature. Most central to his study are the Romantic poets obsession with swimming and water-- among them Goethe, Shelley, Swinburne, Pushkin, Poe and especially Byron who was a formidable marathon swimmer in his own right.
The Romantic ideal was closely associated with Classical notions of the body and nature, and its notion of hero was intertwined with this. Hellenism held a special thrall over the Romantic period. This was the impetus to Byron's swimming of the Hellespont, and to a tragic sub text to his and other lives as they were swept up in naive movements or misadventure (Byron died in a Greek rebellion against the Turks). Swimming was seen as a dissent from the priggish, sanctimonious, imposed to something pure, original, regenerative through nature.
But there was an impulse to self annihilation as well. Some were smashed on rocks, or gripped by undertows or had their health broken by cold water and over exertion. Fitness was not the prevailing motivation; swimming was muse, cave, judge. Its influence continued into the 20th Century, In Jack London's 'Martin Eden', John Cheever's 'the Swimmer" or Yukio Mishima's seduction by Byron's hedonistic fantasies, it again cast down verdicts of elevation, dissolution and destruction.
I was drawn to this book by an Australian broadcast on swimming during the Sydney Olympics, amongst which was excerpts from this book and an interview with Jon Konrads, the 1500 Meter Olympic Champion of 1960, who had returned to swimming in late middle age after decades of absence. In it he found a cerebral tonic, albeit at a much slower pace-- an invigoration, relaxation and something spiritually satisfying, even more so now than in his Olympic form. This is a worth while read for anyone interested in the sport and pastime. Even for the most pedestrian of lappers, it is an invitation to glide in eddies of imagination, sublimely cognizant of and refining the stroke, seeking some mysterious grace. There swimming provides an elixir of meditation and inspiration-- for those that it does not consume.