Book Review: Meanwhile, at the Surface

Open Water: The History and Technique of Swimming by Mikael Rosen
Open Water: The History and Technique of Swimming by Mikael Rosen

Book Review

To non-divers, what scuba-divers do is underwater swimming, but we don’t really think of it as swimming, because we don’t use our arms and have blooming great fins on our feet as machines that multiply the effect of every kick.

There is often a certain amount of surface-swimming involved in scuba, of course, whether intentionally or otherwise but, again, this is often performed in an undisciplined style far removed from that of a Michael Phelps (or am I just speaking for myself?).

Still, the publishers of Open Water obviously felt that there was a link, and sent us a copy of this brick of a book to review.

I was dubious that it would have much relevance so set out to skim-read its 360 pages, and it’s a tribute to how good a writer Mikael Rosen is that I kept finding myself absorbed by the content, and reading it properly.

I can confirm that it has little of direct relevance to scuba-divers, but if you’re the sort of diver who is also a keen swimmer, or uses swimming to stay dive-fit, you will appreciate it.

There is quite a lot of technical stuff about body rotation and stroke length, but what drives the book are the stories of people who have swum through history and keep going today, from Olympics pool speedsters to open-water endurance superheroes.

There is a strong American bias to it all, but then the USA has tended to dominate the record books.

The author is in fact a Swedish coach, and he has a great writing style that goes off on all sorts of interesting side-trails that only serve to enrich the narrative.

You won’t find too many Brits in these pages, other than Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the Channel but who later went a tragic stroke too far at Niagara Falls, plus a 79-year-old phenomenon called Jane Asher (not that one).

Leafing through the “wall of fame” at the back, only Adam Peaty, triathletes Chrissie Wellington and Alistair Brownlee and open-water swimmer Keri-Anne Payne get a passing mention.

Still, swimming transcends mere national boundaries! Talking of which, all the doped-up East German medallists of the ‘70s and ‘80s have had their shamed names struck through.

If all the material about drills, fitness and technique leaves you cold there are also chapters on topics such as how marine life gets around, and one about how the body deteriorates with age that is depressingly forensic.

But if you swim as well as fin, you might just find this book a stimulating read.

Chronicle Books
ISBN: 9781452169941
Hardback, 360pp, 18×24 cm, £25

Review by Steve Weinman



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