Unlike most other animals, humans have to be taught to swim, and yet many of us feel an irresistible pull to the water. There’s something about submerging ourselves that makes us feel very much alive—even as we enter an environment where the risk of death is suddenly all around us. (That’s why the lifeguard is watching.) In her new book, Why We Swim, journalist Bonnie Tsui explores how this unique sport rekindles the survival instincts we inherited from our ancestors, heals some of our deepest wounds, and connects us with a wider community even as we stroke silently alongside each other. In this episode, Tsui guides us through the remarkable tales of an Icelandic fisherman forced to swim for his life, an athlete who found new life by diving into the ocean, and a swim club that sprung up in the middle of a war zone.
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Michael Roberts (Host): Right about now, my family was supposed to be on spring break. For the last few years my wife and I have had these grand visions of taking our three young boys somewhere really warm for the vacation, a spot where we can swim and play in the ocean all day long. It’s pretty much our favorite thing to do.
But then something always gets in the way of the trip, and it doesn’t come together. This year, of course, that something is a frightening global pandemic that has us, and millions of other people, staying at home.
Which means the closest thing we’re getting to a swim these days, is a bath.
And while I really wish I was on a beach, I feel very lucky to at least have a tub. Because submerging yourself in water feels great. It calms me down. And helps me sleep.
And I’m not alone in this. Over the course of history, many major figures have sworn by the therapeutic benefits of going under the water. Benjamin Franklin took daily swims in the Thames River when he was living in London. Also: he was a huge skinny dipper. Kind of surprising, right?
Euripides, the great poet and playwright of ancient Greece, apparently believed that he was cured of rabies by a near-drowning experience.
I learned these facts from Why We Swim, a fascinating new book out this month from journalist Bonnie Tsui. A passionate lifelong swimmer, she wanted to understand why humans feel such a strong pull to the water. Unlike many other animals, we have to be taught to swim. And for a lot of us, it doesn’t come naturally. So, why do we do it?
When I spoke to Bonnie, her first answer was that we don’t have any choice. We swim to survive. Then she started telling me the miraculous story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, an Icelandic fisherman known to his friends as Loy-yay, who, in 1984, was forced to complete one of the most grueling swims imaginable—or die trying.
Bonnie Tsui: It was winter-time,and he was on this fishing vessel off the coast of Iceland. Um, there's this archipelago called the Westman islands or Vestmannaeyjar, and it's right off the coast of mainland Iceland. And this fishing trawler was working the seas, it was nighttime, um, and it was marched and it was pretty cold.
Roberts: By pretty cold, she means right around freezing. As the 5-man crew worked the sea, their trawling gear snagged on the bottom. They used a winch to try and pull it up... and then the steel winch cable went taught, pulling the boat onto its side. They tried to slacken the winch, but it jammed.
Tsui: This wave came and just knocked the boat over. And everyone went into the ocean.
Roberts: Two of the men drowned almost immediately. Loy-yay and the two others who were still alive climbed on top of their overturned boat, which was sinking fast. They tried to launch the emergency life raft, but they couldn’t reach the release mechanism.
Tsui: Usually when something like this happens, there's no one left to tell cause everyone drowns and everyone freezes to death. And the water was 41 degrees, and in 41 degree water, you have 20 minutes maybe, 30 minutes max before you die of hypothermia.
Roberts: There was only one thing for the men to do: swim for shore, which was more than three and a half miles away. So they went for it, calling out to each other as they swam to spur themselves on. Pretty soon, though, Loy-yay realized he was all alone. Exhausted, he talked to seagulls to keep himself awake.
Tsui: One of the things that happens when you get really cold is that you just get very fuzzy -- none of your extremities are working and your brain isn't working and all the blood is rushing to your core to try to keep you warm.
Roberts: He swam backstroke, training his eyes on a lighthouse on the tip of Heimaey, the island where he’d lived his whole life. After six hours, he reached land, but in the worst possible place -- at the base of a cliff. There was no way he could climb up, so he swam back out, and he angled down the coast.
When he finally got out of the water, he was on a field of sharp lava rocks that were covered in snow—and he was barefoot. He yanked off the thin sweater he was wearing over his flannel shirt and tore it so he could wrap pieces around his feet.
Tsui: He's so thirsty, he's exhausted. And so he finds this water troffer for watering sheep, and it's frozen solid, so he punches through to get a drink of water, and then he just finds his way into town. It’s early morning. And so he knocks on the door of the first house he sees that has lights on. And behind him is this trail of bloody footprints kind of leading up in the snow to this house.
Roberts: When Lo-yay got to the hospital, doctors at first couldn’t even detect his pulse. But as they continued to examine him, they were shocked that he seemed in pretty good shape.
Tsui: He has no signs of hypothermia and he's only a little bit dehydrated and it's just sort of like, what, how did this even happen? How did he survive?
Roberts: The answer, researchers would later determine, was that he had been gifted with a remarkable biological quirk: Guðlaugur Friðþórsson’s body was insulated by more than half an inch of rather solid fat.
Tsui: That's like two to three times the normal human thickness. He's kind of like a seal. I mean, he's more like a Marine mammal than a terrestrial mammal.
Roberts: Or, as many people in Iceland saw it, he was more like a Selkie—the mythical creatures found in folktales that can change back and forth from human to seal form.
Tsui: And there are all these stories of these selkies starting human families and then they'll like return to the sea and they'll take their like half seal babies with them.There's like all kinds of stories like that, but at they’re total fairytales and the crazy thing is that he's the real life selkie.
Roberts: But it was more than magical blubber that kept Lo-yay alive on his swim. The selkie legends of Iceland grew out of a culture that is intimately tied to the sea—and a people that know all too well that being able to swim is a matter of life and death.
Tsui: Swimming is just a mandatory part of life. When I went to visit Heimaey, the island that he’s from in the Westman Islands, there is a history museum, and a whole wall is dedicated to documenting drownings at sea. Year after year after year, there are hundreds of people who have drowned. It’s a ledger of lives that have been lost.
Roberts: But swimming in Iceland isn’t just about survival—it plays a hugely important social function.
Tsui: Everywhere in Iceland there are pools. Every town has a pool and they swim year-round because many of the pools are geothermally heated. You'll see kids and babies and 89 year old grandmas and grandpas like going there after work. Someone told me that the pools are our pub, like that's where they go to hang out. It's just where the community hangs out. And so to be a part of the community, you have to be in the pool and you have to know how to swim.
Roberts: As a young boy, Lo-yay learned to swim in a pool. He and a friend would also swim off of Heimaey’s beaches with no adults in sight. Later, he completed rigorous water safety training in the maritime academy. So he was about as well prepared as he could be for his epic.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, he was Icelandic, a people famous for their grit. In 1973, when a volcanic eruption on Heimaey threatened the island’s harbor, which was critical to the fishing industry, residents actually fought the volcano to a standstill, cooling lava flows with millions of gallons of seawater pumped through pipes.
Just over a decade later, when Lo-yay survived an impossible swim, he was held up as the ultimate symbol of a nation’s resilience. It was a lot for him to handle.
Tsui: He came here to the U.S. the year of his accident, and he was traveling with friends and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson tracked him down. They found out where he was and called and said, we want to have you on the show. He told me this. He said, I turned to my friends and I said, I think it's time to go back to Iceland.
Roberts: Back home, Lo-yay tolerated the attention and the never ending requests for interviews and the scientists wanting to study him for a while. And then he didn’t.
Tsui: It just starts to wear on you. And he was just like, I want to live my life. He stopped talking to journalists and he stopped. He felt that he had done enough, and just wanted to be left alone.
Roberts: On the first anniversary of Lo-yay’s swim, 20 student’s from Heimay’s navigation college gathered at a pool to honor him by swimming the same distance, six kilometers, or 3.7 miles, while fully clothed. This launched an annual tradition, and the event was dubbed the Good-lug-sund, or Guðlaugur’s swim.
Tsui: Over time, people in the community joined in, people who had lost loved ones. And so they would swim for memory and they would swim to honor what Lo-yay was able to do. It became something that was bigger than him and bigger than the lives that were lost. It was just a way to stay connected to their history.
Roberts: When Bonnie traveled to Heimaey a couple years ago, she met Lo-yay the night before the Good-lug-sund. He’d long stopped talking to journalists by then, but Bonnie had sent him a letter anyway, explaining her book, and he’d written back. They became pen pals. And when she wrote to tell him she was coming to Iceland to swim in the event, he agreed to meet her.
Tsui: We got into his truck and he's like, we should just go for a drive and talk because anywhere we go elsewhere to talk, or people will see us or people will be listening.
Roberts: So they toured the island and he told her his story. They even stopped by the lighthouse that had been his beacon as he desperately swam towards Heimaey all those years ago.
At about 6AM the next morning, Bonnie went to the pool hall to swim the Good-lug-sund. When she got there, some swimmers were already finishing up, having started at 4:30, so they could still get to work.
Officials were counting laps. More swimmers keep arriving. Towards the end, she started feeling a bit giddy and then, after an hour and 50 minutes, she was done.
Tsui: And then when I got out, I was sort of light-headed. But I felt this euphoria-- I swam not just for the feat of doing it, but just like I swam because I wanted to honor him. And then I texted him and I said, I just got out. The hilarious thing is that he wrote back: good job, and you need to get some rest. And it just was like, it just made me laugh so hard that he was telling me that I needed to get some rest cause it was a long swim.
Roberts: The euphoria that Bonnie felt in the pool on Heimaey wasn’t a new or surprising sensation for her. Like a lot of swimmers, she says that many of her experiences in the water have made her feel intensely alive.
And this isn’t just an aquatic version of runner’s high. As a terrestrial species, we’re not at home in the water. In fact, when we swim, we’re entering an environment where death is suddenly a much more recognizable possibility. That’s why the lifeguard is watching.
Tsui: To swim is to constantly be reminded of that boundary line. We're interested in, intrigued by it; we want to dance a little closer to that boundary line and see what we find. And I think that's why survival stories and specifically survival stories about water and being at sea are so fascinating to us because we want to know what someone reports back from that place.
Roberts: We’ll be right back
Roberts: Swimming may allow us to casually edge closer to our own mortality, but for some people, the only way to really feel that aliveness that comes with being in the water is to dive into the most uncomfortable and even frightening of places.
Consider the case of Kim Chambers, one of the most-accomplished distance swimmers on the planet. Among her achievements is the Oceans Seven, which entails crossing seven open-water channels around the world. The list includes the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Molokai Channel, in Hawaii.
Here’s how she explains why she does it in the documentary Kim Swims, which you can watch on Amazon Prime.
(audio from Kim Swims documentary) One thing I always notice is when I’m back on land, all of the signposts say, Go Left; Go Right; Slow down. It’s all so controlled, and prescribed. When I’m out there in the ocean, it’s endless. I am creating my own path. It’s this adventure, it’s a magical space and I’m weightless.
Roberts: Kim’s open-water marathons are all the more impressive—and surprising—when you learn that she got into swimming as a way to recover from a horrific accident.
Born in New Zealand, she had gone to college in the U.S. and was working in the tech industry in San Francisco when, one morning she tripped and fell down a staircase while wearing high heels. It was a bad fall, but Kim thought she’d be ok -- so she went to work. Then her right leg started swelling like crazy and she was rushed to the hospital.
Tsui: She's suffering what's from what's called leg compartment syndrome, which means that the swelling in her leg is basically killing off the nerves and the tissues and cutting off circulation. And if you don't get treated for that right away, you will lose that limb. And so she was 30 minutes away from amputation that day.
Roberts: When Kim woke up from surgery, doctors told her they’d saved her leg, but that she might never walk again. This was tough news for someone who’d been a committed athlete and a serious ballet dancer.
She began two years of full-time physical therapy. It helped—but only to a point. She was able to walk, but with a limp, and only with the aid of an orthotic.
Tsui: She didn't feel strong. She didn't feel confident. She didn't feel like herself. She just really felt completely alienated from her body.
Roberts: What changed all that, was getting in a pool.
Tsui: She had always remembered that she loved swimming and being at the beach with her grandparents in New Zealand, and she wanted that kind of freedom.
Roberts: She was a terrible swimmer at first, but it didn’t matter. In the water, she could move again.
At first, she went to the pool at night so people wouldn’t stare at her scars. Soon, though, she was comfortable enough to go anytime, and one day some other swimmers suggested she should take a dip in the frigid San Francisco Bay with the hardy crew of the city’s legendary Dolphin Club.
She gave it a go, and it was a revelation.
Tsui: She describes herself as this shivering woman, just like a ghost of herself. But she was so happy.
Roberts: The lack of walls or lane lines, the vastness of the Bay, the wildlife—it sparked something in Kim. So she kept going back.
Tsui: And, and then it just became clear that she, even though she was not the most natural swimmer, she had a lot of power. She had a lot of strength and she had a lot of spirit that would kind of basically carry her on.
Roberts: As Kim continued to swim, she noticed that some of the nerves in her injured leg were coming back to life. Bonnie says this isn’t a huge surprise. People have long assumed that swimming can alleviate all kinds of problems. In England in the 17 and 18 hundreds, immersion in seawater was believed to be the ultimate tonic for everything from GI distress to fevers to depression. President Franklin Roosevelt, who suffered from polio, had a pool installed in the white house so he could swim multiple times a day for therapy.
There’s not a lot of hard science to support the idea that swimming is a cure-all, but modern research on arthritic patients has shown that swimming does have a unique ability to increase circulation, stimulate mobility, and reduce pain compared to other activities, and that these benefits endure even when people get out of the water. That was certainly true for Kim.
Tsui: and just mentally too. Being momentarily free of the weight of having to move your body through space. I think that that was incredibly healing for her -- and then also to realize that she was really good at it. She was really good at swimming for a long time.
Roberts: Kim’s remarkable endurance, combined with many, many hours of training, powered her through the Oceans Seven challenge. She finished in 2014, with a 21-mile swim across the North Channel, between Scotland and Ireland, and afterwards had to be hospitalized for toxic shock after suffering countless jellyfish stings.
The following year, she jumped into the Pacific at the Farrallon Islands—located off the coast of San Francisco and known for an abundant population of great white sharks. She swam 30 miles to the Golden Gate Bridge, making her the first woman to do so. It took her 17 hours, 12 minutes, and 39 seconds.
Few of us will ever push ourselves to swim across open-water channels, let alone an unheated pool. But almost everyone who’s jumped in the water can attest to the fact that it offers a special kind of restorative benefits.
Tsui: The sheer fact of swimming is that you take a big breath and you hold it and then you exhale slowly. And that rhythm in itself is calming.
Roberts: Bonnie learned to swim at age 5, because her parents, who were big swimmers, didn’t want her to drown on their regular trips to the beaches of Long Island, New York. Then she swam competitively. And then, as she got older, swimming became a kind of self care.
Tsui: When I get in the water, usually there’s like 80 different things running through my brain and I feel a little jittery. But swimming, after about 10 minutes, it kind of smooths back my feathers. It has carried me through not just my parents' divorce, but, um, you know, I swam up until the day both of my kids were born. I swam through all those pregnancies. I swam through a miscarriage.
Roberts: This helped her understand the most recent turn in Kim Chambers’s story. In 2018, Kim woke up one morning and noticed her left foot was numb. Soon, paralysis was spreading through her limbs, and she was once again raced to the emergency room.
Tsui: But by the time she got there, she was struggling to breathe, and it turns out, she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Roberts: The cause of the condition is unknown and there’s no cure. When Kim left intensive care, she was paralyzed from the waist down and had trouble speaking. Still, many adults do recover from the illness within a year, but there are no guarantees.
Kim’s path to recovery, of course, has included swimming. Five weeks after going to the hospital, she was back in the cold waters of the bay.
Tsui: It was her 41st birthday, and her friends helped her, in her wheelchair, get down into the water. And she swam for five minutes. And after that, she had to take a three hour nap.
Roberts: So we swim for the euphoric feeling that comes from being out of our element… And we swim to heal, and, ironically, we swim to feel grounded.
But there’s another big reason we swim, which is to be with each other. This is kind of strange when you consider that it’s basically impossible to talk to someone while you’re swimming.
In her book, Bonnie offers a look at a very unexpected swimming club that developed in Baghdad, during a volatile period of the Iraq war. In 2008, a member of the U.S. Foriegn Service named Jay Taylor had taken to swimming in the exquisite open-air pool at a formal royal palace of Saddam Hussein that was inside the safety of the Green Zone, which was controlled by international forces.
Tsui: You can imagine that there's like outside chandelier's and fountains. He would be floating in this beautiful, gorgeous pool and had like diving boards and he'd be staring at the sky and then he would hear this like (imitates gun noises) and that was basically a firing practice that the soldiers would be doing.
Roberts: Other members of the international community were using the pool, too. And one evening Jay watched as a man he knew from Madagascar flailed around pitifully in the water.
Tsui: And Jay had grown up swimming and had taught swimming and was a lifeguard and a coach. He just said, hold up, hold up, hold up -- let me just help you.
Roberts: Pretty quickly, Jay became Coach Jay, and he was teaching a growing squad of swimmers of various abilities from around the world in the middle of a war zone. It was kind of a bizarre situation to say the least.
Tsui: There would be bombs that would drop every now and again, and there would be sirens and people would have to sometimes jump out of the pool and into a bunker. It was a crazy, totally crazy time. And swimming and giving these lessons was a way that people could kind of preserve normalcy
Roberts: All kinds of people showed up for lessons and group swims: officers, soldiers, pilots, diplomats. On land, their interactions would have been based on a rigid hierarchy. But in Coach Jay’s pool, they were all on the same level.
Tsui: You couldn't tell who was the commanding officer and who was the enlisted man, that was how he put it to me. And that was something that was really special. It's a way of being with each other that is different. It's like you have stripped away a lot of what is your normal armor, quite literally, you are just in a swimsuit and goggles.
Roberts: Eventually the Green Zone moved, and Coach Jay was teaching lessons in a fortified compound. One side of the pool was a big glass wall that people passed by on their way to a cafeteria. Not surprisingly, this led to a surge of new swimmers .
Tsui: more and more and more like, like the people would double. And then triple, and then by the end of his time in Baghdad, they had like 250 people on their swim roster. They started calling themselves Baghdad's swim team.
Roberts: In the water, there was swimming instruction, fitness drills, and also a kind of twisted game they called The Guns of Navarone, after the classic Hollywood film.
Tsui: He would turn the lights off in the pool and then everyone would sort of tread water quietly, like up to their eyeballs. And then if people kind of started getting too high in the water or making too much noise, he would, he and Andre would peg them with like volleyballs. This is how they kind of kept sane, it was like the messed up logic of a war zone was just these moments where you just had to recognize the absurdity of what was going on and that was really joyous.
Roberts: Right now, few people are lucky enough to be able to swim at all, and almost nobody is playing funny pool games with a big group of friends. But, eventually, we’re going to dive back in, and it’s going to feel amazing.
Until then, I’m going to do my best to at least put my head under the water everyday.
Roberts: Bonnie Tsui’s new book is Why We Swim. It’s available starting April 14, but you can pre-order now through her website, bonnietsui.com.
The documentary Kim Swims is available on Amazon Prime.
This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.
This episode was brought to you by Visit Florida, one of the country’s great adventure destinations. Learn more about the many kinds of adventures that you can find in the sunshine state, both in the water, and off, at VisitFlorida.com/outside.
We’ll be back next week.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.