“Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui

Bonnie Tsui (Photo: Lynsay Skiba) Bonnie Tsui (Photo: Lynsay Skiba)

We first learn to swim in the womb, Bonnie Tsui writes, and while “not everyone is a swimmer … everyone has a swimming story to tell.” 

Telling the stories of those who swim—for survival, for competition, well-being, fitness or creativity—is what drives Tsui’s latest book Why We Swim, a thoughtful and meditative contemplation, and an exploration and memoir about her own relationship with water.


Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui (Algonquin, April 2020; Rider, August 2020)
Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui (Algonquin, April 2020; Rider, August 2020)

Tsui begins the book with a story of survival—the story of the Icelandic fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who survived six hours in cold water and swam more than three and half miles after his fishing trawler capsized. She meets with Friðþórsson and later also participates in Guðlaugussund, an annual 6km swim in his honour.

Tsui’s quest also takes her to Asia, where she looks into the Bajau sea nomads, free-diving fishermen who swim down to two hundred feet for up to 10 minutes at a time to hunt their prey, and to the Moken, who survived the 2004 tsunami by reading signs in the water. She also travels to Tokyo to learn about samurai swimming and meets with Midori Ishibiki, one of eight people responsible for preserving Nihon eiho, the Japanese swimming martial art.

As she looks at competition and what drives athletes to swim competitively, Tsui speaks with five-time Olympian Dara Torres. But competition also exists for explorers, such as the open-water swimmer Lewis Pugh, who has swum at the North Pole and in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. “Being first is everything,” Pugh tells Tsui, adding that “it’s a competition in creativity.”

Several other trailblazers offer inspiration, from the marathon open water swimmer Kim Chambers, whose accomplishments include the Oceans Seven (seven open water channel swims), and Jay Taylor, who starts a swim team while in Baghdad.


As much as she is asking why we swim, Tsui is asking why she swims. Her story begins with water: her parents met at a swimming pool in Hong Kong (her father was a lifeguard, her mother, Tsui writes, “the bikini-clad beauty”). Tsui began swimming at five and the memories she has of her, her brother and her parents swimming are some of her fondest memories. Swimming is very much a part of her parents’ relationship. Tsui writes:


My parents seemed so happy in the water. In real life, on land, they were often at odds… In the water, the rigid roles that were so defined at home disappeared. The allure of swimming, already powerful, was amplified by its association with the tenuous thing that still held my parents together.


Tsui spends time writing about water’s meditative qualities—its flow—and it’s here where her own writing shines. In the process of writing this book, Tsui has undertaken some new swimming challenges; she also signs up to a masters swim team. Of her daily swims she writes:


Sometimes swimming to blankness is the goal. We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We slip from thought to thought, and then there’s a momentary nothingness. In that brief interlude, we are entirely liberated from the weight of thinking.


Tsui reflects on some of her many swims and while each may have been done for a different reason or under different circumstances, it is the act of swimming itself that remains a constant. “I have marked time by water,” she writes.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.