a meditation on the practice of swimming and art

By Lily Williams

There are so many aspects of art in swimming. Just start with the pool: it’s the most luminous stage you could ever ask for. It commands and centers our attention. When the swimmers step up to their blocks, there is a sense of anticipation equal to any performance. We wait for something to happen and yet we know exactly what it will be: the electronic gun will go off and the swimmers will dive into the water. What follows is all about strength, endurance and form, but like a well-made story it is the minute differences that matter. Swimming focuses our attention, demands that we see form as a kind of perfection. It’s the exact opposite of Modernist experimentation or post-modern pastiche: in the water, the radicals always lose.

On Friday February 8th, 2013 at the University of California at Berkeley (Cal) Spieker Aquatics Complex, the Cal men’s swim team took on the University of Southern California (USC) swim team for a short course (25-meter length of pool) dual meet. Dual meets have a specific scoring system: nine points for first place; four points for second; three points for third; two for fourth and one for fifth. There are anywhere from four to ten lanes filled per race. Swimmers usually swim one to three events, including relays. It’s the human form at its most primal. Man against man and man against water. A meet like this has all the power of abstraction coupled with all the beauty of figuration. Even when it isn’t the Olympics, swimming is one of the most compelling sports to watch. It’s tension is literally in its form.

Photo: Lily Williams
The Spieker Aquatics Complex is imposing. Gigantic concrete walls surround the Olympic-sized pool, which is symbolically cut in half by the presence of diving boards. At any point of the day there are huge shadows slicing the pool deck. The walls contain the space, making the swimmers seem like actors in a drama. Everything about the scene and the look of the swimmers, they all have the same perfect bodies, makes the proceedings both unique and a little inhuman. It’s like seeing the truth of human interaction without actually witnessing any humans. It’s one of the many qualities that make a swim meet so close to art, the way it leads you to abstraction and then back to specifics.

“Take your marks,” the head timer announces. There’s a few seconds of silence, the swimmers hold onto their blocks ready to dive, their huge tan shoulders solid and still. They look like statues. The only thing moving on their sculpted bodies are the slight twitching of muscle, subconsciously tightening as they grip the blocks in anticipation of the start of the race. It’s one of the most intimate moments of the meet and it seems to happen in suspended time. The water is still and no one speaks. BEEP! The swimmers jump forward, arms out and then pulled back to their thighs and then up again. Their whole bodies are fully parallel to the water. It’s an impossibly beautiful sight and so fleeting. Before you know it, there’s a riot of splashing, they’ve broken the water, and all you can see is their shadows gliding like torpedoes under the surface.

Prenot is fast
All eyes are on Josh Prenot, a freshman at Cal, and already a Cal record holder in the 400-meter Individual Medley. His underwater pull takes up more than half of the 25-meter course. Most swimmers can masterfully use their underwater pull to shoot 12 meters across the pool length, but Prenot breaks the surface further ahead than anyone else (just far enough behind the disqualification point to be legal). He comes up for his first stroke and the stands erupt in excitement. It’s natural for people to yell at sporting events, but the cheering at a swimming meet always feels so much more in tune with the athletes, as if we’re right with them as they break the surface of the water.

Prenot’s strokes are smooth, he doesn’t even look like he breathing. Christian Higgins is though—“Christian Higgins, Berkeley sophomore coming up on Prenot, breathing every stroke,” says the announcer. It’s those small differences that we notice, and those differences that end up determining a race. The question is aesthetic and formal: how do minute differences in technique end up making huge differences in who is faster. The body positioning on something so small as the neck to shoulder ratio during a 0.5 second breath could be drastic, more obviously towards the end of the race when personal/pool/world records and first place hang in the balance. The guy sitting behind me yells “ONE TWO! ONE TWO!” hoping that Cal will finish first and second. Prenot’s arms are like knives, shooting forward into the water as his legs frog kick out and his body rolls under the surface. Water ripples for a moment, almost still. Splash! He breaks through again, his shoulders by his ears, his hands almost taking his nose off as they shoot forward together in a prayer position.

The turns are so quick they could rival the quickness of the swimmers’ dives. Each time they touch with two hands (one hand is grounds for disqualification), then jack knife their less dominant arm back, elbow first. Their dominant arm jackknifes up and they drop underwater using both feet to push off the wall. They twist over to their stomachs and pull underwater again. It’s back to the swift strong breaststroke pulls and frog kicks. Each time Prenot takes a breath people screams “GO!” It’s as if we can only scream at the obvious moments of exertion. Each turn at the wall brings more and more tension. By the last turn, the crowd is standing and cheering. The swimmers turn at the wall a total of eight times within the 200-meter breaststroke race: 25 meters, turn, 25, turn, and so on, until they finish. Finishing with a 1.58.0 (personal best of 1.55.06) it’s Prenot all the way, though Higgins makes a solid attempt to beat his teammate.

So fast, he's always celebrating
I want to take a moment to appreciate the level of competition. This is a division-1 swim meet where many of the swimmers are potential Olympic athletes, if they aren’t already. Cal swimmer, Nathan Adrian, has two Olympics under his belt and a total of four gold medals. Let’s just say, Adrian won his race. In fact, his race was so fast that at the beginning of the race I looked down at my program and when I looked up again Adrian had already won. Adrian is so fast I barely remember the race happening. Adrian sets a standard that is unattainable by other swimmers at this meet, even the fastest swimmers on the team cannot compare. Adrian catches another aspect of swimming and art and that it’s so amazing that it feels like a dream. You know that it happened, the results are right in front of you, but it feels unreal, other worldly.
Try the water
There is nothing more powerful than connecting with the water and especially at the skill level of your standard division-one college athlete. It takes years of practice to reach the level of an Adrian, Prenot or even a Higgins. You start in a toddler swimming class, then on to a competitive swim team, then to high school swimming, then to a division-one college and for the select few the Olympics. Obviously swimming is a sport, but it touches on so many aspects of art, not necessarily the art of excess and social disruption that so many believe in, but an art of incredible dedication to form and order. Some believe that art should just be the free expression of feeling, but it can also be a skill that like swimming you have to practice and practice and practice to get right. And those small differences in technique actually determine whether you succeed or fail. The art of swimming speaks to a different view and kind of art, one that makes demands on the artist rather than the artist making demands on the world.

©The CCA Arts Review and Lily Williams

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