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Great Books for Swimmers and Water Lovers

These days, the closest I’ve come to going for a swim has been going for a walk through the park and pausing at the chain link fence protecting my local pool from people like me. When the Shelter-in-Place order was first announced, I had just returned from a lovely swim and felt great. How long could this lockdown possibly last?

It’s lasted long enough for me to revisit many of my favorite swimming-related books, as well as dive into a few new ones. Below is a list of some classic, must-read, books as well as a few new, or lesser-known ones that deserve your attention. I’m an open-water baby, so my picks lean towards tales of wild swimming, stories about endurance athletes and books about the healing nature of water. I hope you’ll find a few on this list to tide you over until you are next able to jump in and enjoy the water yourself.

Kate Matwychuk

Classic Reads:

Swimming to AntarcticaTales of a Long-Distance Swimmer (2005), Lynne Cox

As the matriarch of cold water, long-distance swimming, Lynne Cox made her mark by being the first person to swim the Bering Strait, bridging the cultural and political divide between the United States and Russia. Lynne Cox is a wonderful storyteller, and her humble nature belies her remarkable accomplishments. This book is sure to inspire you to set your own swimming goals, however large or small.

Waterlog, A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain (2000), Roger Deakin.

Roger Deakin was an English writer and environmentalist. Waterlog is believed to have inspired the wild swimming movement now hugely popular throughout the UK. Inspired by John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” Deakin set out to swim through the British Isles, jumping into in rivers and streams, lakes, lochs, ponds, lidos, swimming pools and spas, flooded quarries, and canals. This collection of personal observations and musings about a “swimmer’s right to roam” is a wonderful celebration of swimming.   

New Release:

Why We Swim (2020), Bonnie Tsui

Author Bonnie Tsui is a U.S. masters swimmer with Albany Armada Aquatic Masters. She is also a New York Times contributing author and in this new release about swimming she investigates why water is a siren song for so many. She takes us on an international journey, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, highlighting the myriad ways humans interact with water, acting as a salve for both mind and body. 

Books about marathon swimming:

Swimming the Channel: A Memoir of Love and Loss (1997,) Sally Friedman

I’m not giving anything away to reveal that on the day Friedman was scheduled to fly to England to swim the English Channel, her husband was killed in a car accident. This is a story not only about one woman working to fulfill a lifelong dream to swim the English Channel, but also about her journey to accept the loss of her true love and embrace a different sort of life than the one she had expected. 

The Great Swim (2008), Gavin Mortimer

There was a time when long distance swimming was so popular, news of Channel attempts would make the front page of major newspapers throughout the world. During the summer of 1926, four American women vied to become the first woman to cross the English Channel. The book contains primary sources, diary entries, interviews with relatives and contemporary reports to tell the story of these four women and their courage. The story is riveting and will appeal to swimmers as well as to students of history.

The Man Who Swam the Amazon: 3, 274 Miles on the World’s Deadliest River (2007), Matthew Mohlke

If you have always suspected that marathon swimmers must be a little crazy to spend hours in the water and endure unimaginable conditions, then this story about Martin Strel’s adventure swimming the Amazon river—and battling piranha, crocodiles, anaconda, river sharks, blistering sun, river pirates and drug runners— is for you.

Compelling reads:

The Water Beckons (2019), Linda Hepworth

This is a memoir about one woman’s journey from floating endlessly in her backyard pool as a child to a life of competitive swimming written by our own Pacific Masters swimmer and Update Editor.


The Last Wave (2007), Gillian Best (Fiction)

This is the only work of fiction on the list, and it’s a story I enjoyed as much for the descriptions of ocean swimming as for the development of character and the engaging story. From the back cover: “Set in Dover, England, between the 1940s and present day, The Last Wave follows the life of Martha, a woman who has swum the English Channel ten times, and the complex relationships she has with her husband, her children, and her close friends.”

Swimming Studies (2012), Leanne Shapton

A personal favorite, in this memoir, Shapton describes a situation many of us might be able to relate to: being very, very good at something, but wanting to be great. Shapton trained for the Olympic trials as a teenager, but never realized her dream to compete at an Olympics. She tells the story of returning to swimming as an adult. In writing that is evocative, contemplative and honest, she offers new perspectives on swimming. A highlight? Her collection of swimming suits from her past, included as a series of photographs in the middle section of the book.

Pondlife, A Swimmer Journal, (2013) Al Alvarez

A celebration of the exhilarations (large and small) of swimming year-round in Hampstead Heath, the public swimming ponds located just outside of London. Alvarez is a poet, and his daily observations of common wildlife and birds that also visit the pond are anything but mundane. Throughout these daily entries, Alvarez considers how it feels when you begin to miss that person you used to be—before time robbed your body of youth. Swimming is his antidote to growing old, and he faces the realities of his aging body with humor, insight and frank honesty.

Grayson, (2006) Lynne Cox

Here is a sweet and inspiring story appropriate to read to or with the younger swimmers in your family. Lynne Cox tells the true story of an encounter she had when she was a teenager with a baby gray whale off the coast of California during a training swim. The baby became separated from her mother, and Lynne decided she would try to reunite baby with mom. It’s part mystery, part magic and pure Lynne Cox.

BONUS BOOKS: For water lovers

Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do, (2014) Wallace J. Nichols

Ever wonder why you feel so good after a swim and so terrible when it’s been days since your last encounter with the water? This book shares the science behind why being in or near the water reduces stress and brings us peace. But it does more than give us some science; it includes personal stories from athletes, gifted artists, and military veterans about how water amplifies creativity, expands compassion, increases professional success and improves our overall well-being. If ever you wanted an explanation for what you instinctually believed, this is a must-read.

Deep, Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, (2014) James Nestor

I’ve always been fascinated by free-divers, marveling at their ability to go so deep and remain there for so long. James Nestor feels the same way, and in this book “he embeds with a gang of extreme athletes and renegade researchers who are transforming not only our knowledge of the planet and its creatures, but also our understanding of the human body and mind” (from Goodreads). The book is riveting and offers a glimpse into a deep, underwater world not many have seen or understand much about.


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