Ballistic Books: Swimming

Swimming is the harmony of floating in motion. Much like running, it is a form of moving meditation. As a kid, I used to spend most of my days in, around, or near rivers, lakes, and the ocean. From building rafts with friends that would make Huckleberry Finn proud to jumping into the water with immaculate cannonballs from trees along the shoreline or simply swimming against relentless swell in hopes of catching the perfect wave. Water is freedom. Moving in water is the closest to feeling free we humans can experience. Recently, a wonderful soul gave me Why We Swim with a warm recommendation. I look forward to learning more from Tsui about our relationship with water. Understanding the psychology and philosophy behind overcoming our natural fear of water seems to me a worthwhile endeavor. Swell caught my attention because it tells the history of swimming with a focus on equality. Swimming used to be reserved for men only. Landreth tells the story of how fearless women challenged the status quo and fought for equal access to swimming. These women paved the path for many incredible female athletes. One of these incredible female athletes is Penny Lee Dean. Her autobiography Just Try One More chronicles the highlights of her life and her many adversities, but perhaps more intriguing she tells the reader that you can do it too. Lastly, a guide about books on swimming can’t live without the greatest swimmer of all time: Michael Phelps. His 2009 book No Limits takes the reader through the trials and tribulations of an olympian. It’s a blend between autobiography and revisiting his most spectacular successes at the Olympic Games.

Ballistic books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.

1. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

Bonnie Tsui is a longtime contributor to the New York Times and an accomplished writer. She lives, swims, and surfs in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find Bonnie Tsui on Twitter @BonnieTsui

2. Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth

Jenny Landreth is a writer, script editor, and was the main contributor to the Guardian’s weekly swimming blog. You can find Jenny Landreth on Twitter @JennyLandreth

3. No Limits: The Will To Succeed by Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps is an American former competitive swimmer. He is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time. His foundation focuses on growing the sport of swimming and advocating for mental healthcare. You can find Michael Phelps on Twitter @MichaelPhelps

4. Just Try One More by Penny Lee Dean

Penny Lee Dean is an American long-distance swimmer and author. You can find Penny Lee Dean on Facebook.


Just Try One More

And find out what you are made of. In her autobiography, American ultra-marathon open water swimmer and international swimming hall of famer, Penny Lee Dean describes overcoming life’s adversities and conquering the elements when you just try one more.

Water is an unforgiving element. The oceans are a hostile domain for man. Unlike land, where an ultra-marathon runner may rest during a grueling 100 mile race, the open waters have no mercy: stop swimming and you’ll die. This makes swimming an intriguing sport for many athletes. When it comes to long-distance swimming, however, there are few people as groundbreaking as Penny Lee Dean.

As a native of California, her childhood is marked by moving around several swimming clubs across the Bay Area. Through a series of setbacks within short-distance races Penny identified her talent and passion for endurance swimming. Those early days were filled with invaluable lessons to improve swimming style and to build up mental and physical strength. The longer the swims, the more she needed to acknowledge pain and then go beyond it.

“In marathon swimming, more than in any other sport, the mental attitude is at least 85 percent of the battle.”

What I found fascinating about Penny Lee Dean is her early dream of swimming the English Channel. This goal weaves like a red thread throughout this book. It guides and drives all her important decisions. And in order to make her dream become a reality she was fortunate enough to have an influential coach: Siga Rose. They quickly became a high-performing unit with Siga taking Penny to the next level in a dynamic, ever-changing ocean environment. Persistent training in the ocean with increasing distances elevated Penny into a position where she would attempt to swim 22 miles across open water from Los Angeles to Catalina crossing the Catalina Channel.

Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, is fraught with a deep struggle for love and compassion. Her account of her mother appears like a pendulum that would swing from love and care to not feeling supported and left vulnerable. While her mother was instrumental to find the best coaches and teammates available in the early 1970s Penny also saw the relationship of her mother and father break apart. The emotional struggle with it helped her to build up a mental fortitude that is fueled by an intensity to go further, faster.

Despite her personal adversities with her family, her internal battles against herself, Penny always found her way back to just try one more and see where it would take her. With this unshakable attitude she overcame unimaginable physical pain, emotional stress, jellyfish and the mental trepidation when faced with dynamic swells, waves, high winds and ever changing open water conditions. 

I found many invaluable lessons in Penny Lee Dean’s autobiography. Her description of building up mental toughness through setting affirmations, repeating affirmations and linking those affirmations to concrete goals are commonplace nowadays, but her story takes place in the 1970s when amateur and professional sports were far from scientifically researched as they are nowadays. I was also intrigued by her daily, unwavering discipline. It almost appears as if her daily schedule didn’t change for about two decades: rise by 6am, training in between 6:45am to 6pm, and in bed by 9pm. It speaks to the sacrifices athletes must take on in order to achieve greatness. But it also speaks to the level of passion and dedication she had for the sport. While I chose this book to learn more about overcoming the elements and testing myself in the open waters I sure don’t see myself swimming at ultra-marathon distances. However, the beauty of this autobiography is its simple message: just try one more when you feel you can’t go any further. It’s applicable to your studies, to your family or work struggles or when life hit you hard. Just Try One More is just that: don’t think, do it.