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Detail of an image by Leanne Shapton, who wrote and illustrated ‘Swimming Studies’

Say I'm swimming with people, in the ocean, a pool, or a lake, and one of them knows about my history as a swimmer, and remarks to the others, "Leanne's an Olympic swimmer." I'll protest: "No, no, I only went as far as the Olympic trials – I didn't go to the Olympics." But the boast bobs up like a balloon, bright and curious to some, wistful and exposed to me.

When pressed, it is usually enough to say I went to the 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympic trials. That nationally, I was ranked eighth once, briefly. I explain that to go to the Olympics you have to finish first or second at the trials. This is where the conversations end. After paddling around we wade into the shallows or hoist ourselves up onto the boat or the dock, and the conversation turns toward food, or gossip.

I don't have vivid memories of the Olympic trials, or of winning medals; I barely remember quitting the first time, in 1989, or how I told Mitch, my coach. It would have probably been at an evening practice. On the deck, after, when the other swimmers had gone to change. I would have been standing there in my suit with my duffel bag and towel. He would have said something like "What's up?" And then I would have said it. Said my family was moving to the countryside, said I did not want to live with another family in order to train – so, I said, I had decided to quit.

I might have done it while icing my knees. Freestylers, backstrokers, and butterflyers usually have shoulder problems, but most breaststrokers have knee problems, advised to ice regularly and take eight aspirin a day. After workouts and races, I would sit in the bleachers with a styrofoam cup of frozen water, rolling the flat ice against the insides of my knees until they turned bright pink and lost all feeling. I'd peel the cup back from the edges so it wouldn't squeak against the numb skin. The ice would become slick, contouring as it melted.

But I don't remember talking to him. I do remember talking to Dawn, the assistant coach, the next morning. Mitch wasn't on deck. We sat in two plastic folding chairs by the side of the pool, watching the team practice. Dawn told me Mitch was angry. She asked me what I was going to do. I think I said take up piano and study art, knowing she wouldn't get it. Knowing maybe even I didn't get it. I remember looking out at the swimmers in the lanes, heading into the hard main set, and thinking: I've crossed the line. I don't have to do that anymore.

I remember sitting there and feeling relieved. Mitch once told me: "You're going to be great." Then Dawn told me: "Mitch doesn't want to talk to you." When you're a swimmer, coaches stand above you, over you. You look up to them, are vulnerable, naked and wet in front of them. Coaches see you weak, they weaken you, they have your trust, you do what they say. The relationship is guardian, father, mother, boss, mentor, jailer, doctor, shrink, and teacher. My heart broke.

My grandfather was a bomber pilot in the Second World War. Though he lived into his late eighties, he's frozen in my mind as the young man in a photo, wearing a flight suit and goggles, grinning next to a B-25 Mitchell. The image that comes to mind when I think of my mother is a snapshot of her, taken around 1983, sitting on her bed dressed in work clothes: silk shirt, trousers, long necklace, smiling.

If I think of my dad, he's in our dining room, clapping and singing along to The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. The default image I have of myself is a photo: me, ten, standing next to the ladder at Cawthra Park pool in a blue bathing suit, knees clenched, trying to catch my breath.

I've defined myself, privately and abstractly, by my brief, intense years as an athlete, a swimmer. I practiced five or six hours a day, six days a week, eating and sleeping as much as possible in between. Weekends were spent either training or competing. I wasn't the best; I was relatively fast. I trained, ate, traveled, and showered with the best in the country, but wasn't the best; I was pretty good.

I liked how hard swimming at that level was – that I could do something difficult and unusual. Liked knowing my discipline would be recognized, respected, that I might not be able to say the right things or fit in, but I could do something well. I wanted to believe that I was talented; being fast was proof.

Though I loved racing, the idea of fastest, of number one, of the Olympics, didn't motivate me. I still dream of practice, of races, coaches and blurry competitors. I'm drawn to swimming pools, all swimming pools, no matter how small or murky. When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright Leanne Shapton 2012.

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