Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 49 - Bonnie Tsui - WHY WE SWIM - Part 1 of 3

You know, it’s so when the lake is calm and it’s glass, and it’s a warm summer morning. And it’s early enough so that’s not really– Like you said, it’s a little bit dim in the water.


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“You know, it’s so when the lake is calm and it’s glass, and it’s a warm summer morning. And it’s early enough so that’s not really– Like you said, it’s a little bit dim in the water. It’s so peaceful and you just really feel like you’re part of the landscape, the waterscape, so to speak. And that’s really magical. Yeah, I think. And that does something to our brains too that is really I think nice.”

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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host Jesse Funk. My guest today is a journalist and she frequently contributes to small publications you might know like the New York Times. She’s won various awards in journalism. And of course, the most important thing right now, she’s the author of a new book that just came out this week, Why We Swim. Welcome to the show, Bonnie Tsui.

BONNIE: Thanks, Jessie.

JESSE: Did I stumble over the last name or did I get it? I was close.

BONNIE: You got it. It was close enough.

JESSE: And that’s something I talked about with every guest. So, people are probably tired of me talking about this at the beginning. But it’s just one of those things where it’s like, we have so many languages mashed together here in the US, it’s like to do the proper pronunciation and things that aren’t necessarily phonetically accurate in English, you’re sometimes just struggling. I want to do this right because I don’t want to offend you.

BONNIE: Yes, exactly. The rules are different across the board. So, I take no offense.

JESSE: Right. Oh, I did want to mention I’ve got my goggles, so I’m ready to hit the pool if you’re ready to go.

BONNIE: All right. Absolutely. Virtual swim baby.

JESSE: Yeah, I was– I don’t know if you saw there was a story about, I want to say, a Canadian triathlete. She’s one of the top athletes in the world who’s supposed to be in the Olympics this year. And she ended up getting like, I’ll call it a kiddie pool, but it’s a little bit deeper than that. It’s maybe six feet across or so set up in her garage. She set up like a buoy like a tether system so she can just swim in place at her garage and continue to swim.

BONNIE: Actually, I kid you not I have seen so many of those. People have been setting up these like basically swim tethers in their backyards or their garages. And one of the kids, so my kids are seven and nine and they’re on the swim team, the local swim team and one of the kids on the team has it set up in his backyard and on there, they do Zoom dryland training a couple days a week.

And they showed a video of this kid set up with the tether, and like the big tank of water, and I was really jealous. I was thinking that’d be really fun. And [??? 03:18] I was talking to my husband, I said, it’s [??? 03:21] maybe we could do that for the kids. But I would totally love to do it. It’d be so fun at least for even just for like, chips and giggles, you know?

JESSE: Yeah. I was trying to figure out where I could put mine. And I’m like, my house is already like, filled to the brim since I run a couple of businesses and I’m still relatively small. So, I keep up my inventory, basically in the basement. So, the basement is just filled right now. And then I’m like, okay, maybe the garage but two problems.

One, it’s been dropping down to like 35 degrees at night. And then I also have like, I’m doing– so I live in a 1930s Tudor and I’ve been doing restoration on the house and stripping paints. So, I’ve just like a tent set up in the garage already taking up half the garage. So, I’m like, I need somewhere- [crosstalk]

BONNIE: Not really, it’s not possible for you [??? 04:15]

JESSE: Yeah, probably not. It’s a little upsetting. I just have to use– I have a Total Gym. And I have that setup with the Vasa Trainer. Do you know what I mean [??? 04:26] Vasa Trainer, you probably do. So, it’s a swim specific workout machine. So, often, like only colleges, will get them because they’re like a couple grand. But I have the paddles from that. So, it’s just like pool panels in the pool, but they click it into the Total Gym and I can basically lay on the Total Gym and still do like fly on that. So, I’m getting some kinda work.

BONNIE: Yeah, you’re doing it. Yeah. I haven’t been– I mean, I miss swimming, but there are, I mean, at least here in the Bay Area that they haven’t closed the beaches and coastal access. So, there are places to go swimming in the Bay. And also I’ve been going out to Ocean Beach really early in the morning like when it’s still dark to surf and paddle around. But you have to go really really early because you don’t want to be around other people and so it’s–

But most weeks I would be doing every day either swimming or surfing, the first thing in the morning, and so it’s just, I miss being in the pool and miss the long workout. And just letting myself, you know, my mind just wander around. And I think that just now we all really need that. And our bodies are so jittery we’re just constantly inundated with all this information that’s like pretty anxiety-inducing for a lot of people. So, anyway, I really miss it. I totally miss it.

JESSE: Yeah. Well, I think right now it’s like, we almost just have to, at least in our house, just stop watching the daily updates like check it [??? 06:17] once a week and just how are things going.

BONNIE: Yes. I agree with that. Because it’s not. I think we know enough now that we know that things are not going to change suddenly, in that we’re not suddenly going to return to normal or what used to be normal. So, I was actually just talking to my husband about this last night, same thing where we’re just sort of like, do we need to read the Coronavirus update every day? I mean, yeah, exactly. It just saves your sanity and try to maintain equilibrium by not doing that.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. So, I’m gonna backup on you just a little bit. Thinking about you said you go out to surf and paddle around like early in morning when it’s still dark. Are you– So, this is the Midwestern boy in me because I’m just, I’m a dryland kind of guy. Pretty much. I mean, I swim now and we’ve got lakes around here, but just I’ve never lived on the coast. So, do you take out– Is there like a swim buoy attached to you or is there like a flashing light on your head? Or are you just like out there by yourself?

BONNIE: If I’m surfing, obviously, I don’t do that. I don’t need that. I will go right at first light. So, I’ll be there in the dark but I’ll wait until I can see. It’s critical. And then just because most of the time I would be going to surf with a buddy. Occasionally, I still am now but we’re just much further apart. But swimming wise, like friends of mine are doing these base ones and it’s been they go during the day. I think it’s just safer that way.

But I have seen actually, people out swimming on the coast, on the Pacific Coast a little bit south of us. And they have buoys, and they have like brightly colored caps and they wait until it’s light enough so they can see. I mean, I don’t think anyone– I mean, I would not advise against people swimming in the dark. But that’s just asking for one that’s like a little riskier than I would be comfortable with anyway.

JESSE: Yeah. It’s just one of those things, right. I think this is a little bit thematic to the book, but just thinking about kind of the serenity of both being in the water and a lack of light. You know, when we don’t have that visual acuity of things to focus on where your brain’s allowed to kind of like, turn down the filter a little bit and not work so much on like all the things I’m seeing, it just seems like if it were safe and comfortable to do like just right at dusk or dawn, where there’s barely anything, could be a very like calming relaxing experience.

BONNIE: Yeah, and certainly on a lake setting. I mean, I think about swimming at Lake George in upstate New York where I have spent a lot of time. And you know, it’s so when the lake is calm and it’s glass, and it’s a warm summer morning. And it’s early enough so that’s not really– Like you said, it’s a little bit dim in the water. It’s so peaceful and you just really feel like you’re part of the landscape, the waterscape, so to speak. And that’s really magical. Yeah, I think. And that does something to our brains too that is really I think nice.

JESSE: Yeah, yeah. How often do you come across somebody who thinks you’re absolutely insane?

BONNIE: All the time.

JESSE: Let me clarify. So, I come from a running background and I find a lot of peace in running. And a lot of people will look at me like, I hate running. It just hurts. Like, why would you do that? And I feel like maybe you possibly end up with the same thing or a similar kind of idea. Like, we’re not meant to be in the water. How could you possibly find that enjoyable?

BONNIE: Right. Yeah, I think for people who are not comfortable in the water and don’t have a regular practice with it, there’s definitely that element of like, why would you do that? That sounds crazy. Or they think it’s that you’re so tough and you’re so wild to do that. And I think that if they just were to integrate some of that practice into their own lives, then they would understand that it’s not actually for the adventure rush of it exactly.

It’s more for the– I mean, what you’re just saying is that you get so much like mental and emotional health, from running away from going out to go for a long run and where you’re– I think, just like going out for a long swim, your brain can wander.

And then you come back and your feathers are smooth back and you’re just like in this really nice state. You’re tired, but you’re tired in a good way. You’re tired in a way that you have run out all of the tension in your, or not all of it, but like a lot of it. That is just we– I mean just physically we sit so much and we’re sitting right now [??? 11:53] we’re talking to each other. And I think especially now, we’re just doing so much, more spending so much time indoors in our homes.

But even before, so many more people have desk jobs and not these days, and more and more people are just so sedentary. And so to get the time away where you’re moving and we’re built to move, that just kind of resets our bodies in a way that I think we need more than we think.

JESSE: I think sometimes people forget, or don’t give enough credit to that, although we as humans have basically removed ourselves from the food chain and maybe this is why people forget like, we still are part of the animal kingdom. We’re still physical beings in a physical plain experiencing physical things. So, movement is a natural and normal part of physical existence. It’s like we take that and we’ve worked so hard to be as comfortable as we possibly can be that we’re almost divorced from this more natural setting of like moving more often as just a [??? 13:13].

BONNIE: Yeah, for sure. One of the– So, I have my whole life, swimming and being in the water, obviously. But in the book, there’s a point in the beginning where I want to reconnect to the reason that we would have learned to swim as humans in the first place, which is of course survival. And one of the things I did was I went diving for abalone up on the north coast of California and get the abalone, dive for it, clean it, pound it, cook it, feed it to my family. And that whole experience was really interesting because like you said, we’re so divorced from movement.

We’re so divorced from the reasons that we would need to do it in the first place from way, way back in the evolutionary process. And I wanted to get back to some sense of like, what would it be to swim for resources, right? Like to swim for food, dive for food. Because we are so divorced from our food sources these days in modern life that I have never had an urge to like go hunting or run down a deer or whatever. But fishing, diving for something, collecting it, you’d dive some dozens of feet down to get the abalone and then you’ve got to like pry them off of the rock sometimes and you just have to hold your breath. So, it’s freediving, you’re not allowed to– [crosstalk]

JESSE: Okay, that’s what I was gonna ask.

BONNIE: Yeah, you’re not just– you’re not a – tanker. It would be a not fair fight. The abalone would be wiped out. So, there are regulations around that. And so, in fact, the abalone population has been pretty low in the last couple years. So, they’ve actually closed the fishery. But I’m imagining that at some point in the next couple years that they’ll reopen it again. But when I did that, I just remember thinking this is so new for me to actually go get food and cook it and prepare it. And that was all done by me like my breath and my body, which it just was a very basic thing that was very satisfying. And I actually, really recommend it.

I don’t know what form that would take. And I think a lot of people obviously have gardens and they grow their food and they take a lot of satisfaction from that. And hunters among us, but there’s something about that that was really, I think a reminder of like how much effort it really takes to make the food that we eat and then sort of like what is the process of like, physical effort to do that. And so just an appreciation of that connection to all of those resources we have here.

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