Lynn Sherr explores ‘why we love the water’

Lynn Sherr — ‘Swim: Why We Love the Water’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

You don’t have to be a swimmer to love Lynn Sherr’s delightful and informative book “Swim: Why We Love the Water” (Public Affairs, $25.99). In its 212 pages, including an excellent index, broadcast journalist and writer Lynn Sherr, who has been swimming since she was a toddler, covers nearly every aspect of the aquatic sport, drawing upon her more than 30 years as an award-winning correspondent for ABC News.

So what’s Jewish about swimming and the water, you might ask? For one thing, the Hebrew Bible taught us that it would have been a good idea if more people knew how to swim during the Great Flood. Moses, our most respected Prophet, was rescued from the Nile River by Pharaoh’s daughter; his very name means “drawn from water.” During the Exodus, the Children of Israel had to dive in to the Red Sea whether or not they could swim, trusting that they would indeed cross on dry land.  And the Talmud teaches that one of the duties of a parent, along with teaching children Jewish values, is to teach them how to swim.

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Of more recent vintage, before there was Michael Phelps, there was Mark Spitz. Sherr points out that at the 1972 Olympics the Jewish swimmer became the first Olympian to win seven gold medals at a single competition. Tragically, the 1972 Munich Olympics and Spitz’s accomplishments were to be overshadowed by the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes by Black September Palestinian terrorists.

Sherr’s book, which drew praise from legendary movie star swimmer Esther Williams, celebrates the history, personalities and the eternal lure of water, whether it is a domesticated Hollywood pool or the choppy waters of the English Channel. For sports fans, Sherr pays ample tribute to the accomplishments of Spitz, Phelps and screen Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller. She includes discussion of what drew such historic figures as Julius Caesar and Benjamin Franklin to swimming. She traces the origins of the various strokes and techniques of water sports, and traces its evolution from its earliest days to today’s status as the “third most popular sports activity in the country.”

Sherr can wax quite eloquent in describing the “otherworldly” pleasures of swimming, writing, “At one level, it’s purely sensual: the silky feeling of liquid on skin; the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get…But it’s also an inward journey a time of quiet contemplation…I find myself at peace, able — and eager — to flex my mind, imagine new possibilities, to work things out without the startling interruptions of human voice or modern life. The silence is stunning.”

Fans of presidential trivia will learn from Sherr’s book that those who enjoyed swimming include outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt, who also skinny-dipped in the Potomac and “swam Rock Creek in the early spring when the ice was thick on it”; the very athletic Gerald Ford, who commissioned the outdoor pool at the White House; the former lifeguard Ronald Reagan, who reportedly saved 77 lives on that job and the “famously buff” Barack Obama, who waded shirtless into the Hawaiian surf. Franklin D. Roosevelt put in the first White House pool in 1933, which gave comfort to the polio-stricken chief executive.

If all of the above were not enough, Sherr includes a compendium of popular movies with swimming components, including “Sunset Boulevard,” which begins with the narrator-protagonist floating dead in a swimming pool, and “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s breakthrough film, which shows post-graduate Hoffman floating on a raft in the family pool as he’s chastised by his father to get off his duff and find a job.

So go ahead, immerse yourself in this fact-filled, entertaining and informative book. When you are finished reading, you will feel as refreshed as you would after a vigorous swim.