Much of the advance advertising copy for Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian focused on a “unlike any swim autobiography you’ve read” billing. The book certainly lives up to this promise.
Foremost, while swimming is central to Chasing Water, it’s more about one person’s journey from early success (which happens to be swimming in this case) to losing their way, to ultimately finding a truer self, a blend old and new ways, habits, and knowledge.
Then there are the really unusual elements…
Footnotes: Not only do they appear, several are included per chapter. The footnotes also steal the limelight from the main text because they tend to be the most ironic and thus humorous tidbits.
Subject matter: Chasing Water is probably not appropriate for your average tween age grouper who idolizes sprinters; the material frequently veers beyond even an R rating. As a graduate student, much of my training was to consider what the author wasn’t saying. As such, Chasing Water made me wonder what was left out of the narrative…
Reading level: Way higher than the typical third-grade fare in print today. Ervin went to graduate school for English, and it shows. The book is riddled with quotes and references from sources that pretty much only graduate students are forced to read.
Mini graphic novel: A snippet from Ervin’s life in cartoon form is included at the end of the book. It’s both fascinating and totally original.
Index: Historical documents concerning one of Ervin’s relatives from the 1700s is included. Interesting? Yes, and readers are able to connect a few dots between the two men despite being centuries apart. But I’m still not sure they’re essential to Ervin’s narrative.
Co-author: Both Ervin and Markides are excellent writers, and I applaud Ervin for writing about half of the book. But it was always a bit jarring to switch back and forth between the two voices. Plus, Markides seems to have an ax to grind, whether it’s against the traditional masculine athlete persona in our culture (dumb, skirt-chasing, war-like) and the damage it inflicts on more sensitive souls, or the stifling, pigeon-holing of athletes by sports organizations, or elite USA swimming, or all of the above, I’m not sure. But his tone remains “cranky” throughout.
As for what Ervin reveals about himself? He’s clearly a fascinating individual. A crazy-gifted swimmer. Incredibly bright. And, after reading about the more perilous periods of his life to date, I’m really glad he’s still here. Ervin has tremendous insight to share with people of all walks of life, especially regarding his bravery to go all in with whatever he was investigating, undergoing, or believing at the moment. Best of all though, I know that after reading his book, Ervin couldn’t care two hoots about what I think about him, a hard-earned quality which I admire the most about him.
Next Week: Open Water Conditions in the Pool