Leanne Shapton on Swimming Studies

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First aired on The Next Chapter (3/9/12)


Leanne Shapton wears many hats. She's an author, illustrator and accomplished art director. But her most unique topper isn't a hat at all: it's a swim cap. In her teens, Shapton was an elite competitive swimmer, racing in the Canadian Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992. This intense period, filled with early morning practices, strict diets and millions of laps in hundreds of pools around the world is the subject of Shapton's latest book, Swimming Studies

Shapton began swimming as a young girl and instantly her world was shaped by the repetitive routines of an athlete: practice, eat, school, practice, eat, sleep, repeat. It was "very, very structured," she told The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview. "Morning practices would start at 5 a.m., which meant my alarm was set for 4:25, which was the last possible minute I knew I could cram everything in. We'd be in the car by 4:35 and drive to Meadowville Pool or Clarkson Pool or Terry Fox Memorial Pool and by basically 5:01, we'd have done our stretches on the deck and be in the water for two hours." Twice a day practices took place Monday through Friday. A longer morning practice happened on Saturday morning and on Sunday, Shapton got to give her exhausted body a rest.

Despite Shapton's success in the pool, Swimming Studies doesn't focus on the glory of victory and the pain of defeat. Instead, it paints a portrait of the mundane details of what it means to be a competitive swimmer: constantly smelling like chlorine, eating cold spaghetti at 5 a.m., seeing a booger in the pool during morning practice, the embroidery on the new team tracksuits. "These very very quotidian details of practice touched me," Shapton said. "Athletes generally have a lot of rituals, have a lot of routines, and superstitions and objects come in very strongly, like the favourite suit, the favourite pair of goggles, the colour, all of these things. I think we can all relate to a plate of cold spaghetti, covered in foil, you eat in the morning, even if you're not a swimmer....Objects are a common language."

Swimming Studies also focuses on Shapton's teammates and coaches, envisioning the personal lives of her competitors and depicting her own family life, because, to Shapton, this is the most interesting part of athletics. "So much of what we perceive [about] athletes and how we're meant to perceive athletes, because of the podium, because of victories, because of winning, is a very two-dimensional thing," she said. She points to tennis pro John McEnroe and swimming star Victor Davis as two great examples of athletes with fascinating personalities and lives outside sport. "Sport can be conventional [but] at a certain level, it's very unconventional. It's the weirdest thing for someone to do with their life. I really like seeing a sense of the athlete as an individual and I think it's rare."

It's been 20 years since Shapton's last Olympic trial, but swimming has shaped her life in profound ways. Open water makes her uncomfortable. She perfected her art through drawing the same picture hundreds of times -- just as she perfected her swimming stroke by doing hundreds of laps. She's introspective and thoughtful, thanks to spending hours in her own head while in the pool. However, she didn't realize just how embedded her swimming self was to her 30-something professional self until she sat down to write about it. "It is very important," she said. "I realized this and I think I needed to realize this in writing the book."

Swimming Studies features a number of Shapton's illustrations, including paintings of all the pools she remembers swimming in and photographs of her swimsuit collection. You can see some of this work in the photo gallery below.

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