The art ofWHY WE SWIM


Are you a keen swimmer or more of an only-while-on-holiday type? We chat to Bonnie Tsui, author of Why we swim, about wild swimming and what it is about water that seems to draw us all in.

You’re a wild swimmer. What does that mean, to someone who’s never heard the term before?

In the States, we use the term “open-water swimming” to refer to swimming in the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams… basically water bodies outside the constraints of a pool. My understanding is that “wild swimming” is the UK equivalent of that. But really it’s all just swimming, isn’t it?

More generally, what is your personal connection to water? And what do you think it is about it and swimming in particular that draws us in?

It’s the daily tonic that I need to feel more, well, me. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that getting into water first thing – with a swim or a surf – is so incredibly restorative. Being out in the Pacific with the sunrise, or in the pool with my neighbours… it replenishes my soul and my heart and exercises my body to boot. My feathers are smoothed back, and I can go into the day with equanimity.

There has been much talk in recent years about the therapeutic powers of moving under water, is this something you have explored in your book? Conversely, we’ve all met those who are afraid of water – do you have any advice for them?

Absolutely – the book dives deep into the physiological and psychological aspects of humans in water. I love that the science is finally catching up to what we’ve always known about the therapeutic powers of immersion. For those who are still suspicious of water: take your time. Ease into a swimming practice with someone you trust. The head game is real, and it’s the biggest obstacle of all.

If you get into open water every day, you have an intimate understanding of how things are so connected on our planet – water connects us all

Our oceans and water ways play such an important role in our planet’s systems, so it’s in our best interest to protect them – whether that’s with beach cleans or more widespread legislative action. Is sustainability a key focus at all in the wild swimming community? If so, what are some tips you can share?

I think that if you get into open water every day, you have an intimate understanding of how things are so connected on our planet – water connects us all – and of your tiny existence in it. You feel a responsibility to the way the ecosystem operates. You see runoff in the water, plastic on the beach. You see the way other living beings thrive or falter in varying conditions, the way warming climate can change the delicate balance of things. So anything we can do to have a lighter footprint and live a less disposable life is going to be better for that world as a whole.

Your book explores how we swim and more generally how we interact with water, not just around the world, but throughout history as well. Are there any surprising or uplifting stories that stand out for you?

So many! I love all the stories in the book – they’re my children – but I’m a huge fan of the marathon swimmer Kim Chambers. Swimming gave her a new lease on life, more than once.

Author portrait by Lynsay Skiba