Thursday, August 16, 2007

They wanted something amazing in tile

The official Swim Lit post...

Kimberly Stevens has an amazing article about high-end swimming pools in the Times today. It reads almost like satire (it's the quotations that do it, let us all make a mental note to be very very careful what we say to the press! Stevens has a good ear for the absurd...):
Mr. Nagel said that most of his clients are interested in being “the envy of all their friends.” He is currently working on an all-marble pool in the shape of a dolphin — 60 feet from nose to tail — for the home of Ken and Georgia Chamitoff in Palmdale, Calif., which he estimates will cost nearly $300,000; the idea came from their 8-year-old daughter, Sophia. A hot tub will bubble by the dolphin’s head and a slide will drop down along the curve of its dorsal fin. “When you think you’ve heard it all, there’s always the client who comes up with something off the chart,” Mr. Nagel said.

“We didn’t want the typical tropical lagoon that everyone else has in the backyard,” Mrs. Chamitoff explained. “I think it was important to Ken that Sophia could talk about having a dolphin pool with her friends at school.”

Lou Downes, the owner of Downes Swimming Pool Company in Arlington Heights, Ill., which specializes in high-end pools, said some of the requests he gets are too outrageous to be realistic. “Everyone has this James Bond fantasy of swimming from the outdoor pool through a tunnel into the indoor pool,” he said. “We try to make everyone happy, but this just isn’t practical.”

For those clients, he recommends separate indoor and outdoor pools, like the ones he’s working on for a couple outside Chicago, with a koi pond visually linking the outdoor and indoor pools. The outdoor pool, which will have fiber-optically lighted and computer synchronized water jets, will cost about $1 million, Mr. Downes said; the whole project will be almost $2 million. “For me, high-end goes far beyond the price tag,” Mr. Downes said. “It’s more of a philosophy: It’s the blending of the finest materials and the most recent technology and a client who has a dream.”
The pictures will blow your mind--only of course one symptom of my swimming obsession is that all of these pools would be totally inappropriate for the kind of swimming I want to do, I need a grungy swimming pool with a good coach!

I cannot remember a summer when I've had so little light reading, it's pretty strange. I have read a few novels here and there, including Cecil Castellucci's Boy Proof (a non-guilty pleasure) and Stephenie Meyer's New Moon (definite guilty pleasure--Liesl Schillinger had a rather brilliant review in the NYTBR this past weekend that tactfully manages to get across why these books are at once quite trashy and rather irresistible).

My main guilty reading pleasure this summer, though, has been triathlon blogs, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that every waking hour is spent either thinking about the book I'm finishing or else either training for or thinking about training for future triathlons!

And I have been feeling the light reading fit coming on me rather strongly (this is where I have to just dementedly read a few books in a row as a break from normal life), and so I gave way to it--last week I maniacally requested a host of cycling- and swimming-related books from the blessed BorrowDirect, which is certainly one of the unequivocal goods in life (hmmm, these swimming books all seem to have come from the Princeton library, interesting...)--the swimming recommendations were from a great site called Timed Finals that Wendy tipped me off to. I had only read two of the five book recommendations, so it was clear what had to be done...

(NB in many respects cycling is a more obvious fit for literature than swimming, cycling has a demented hobbyist/cultural history element that leads to a high overlap between cyclists and writers, but perhaps there will be more swimmer-writers in future, that would be good!)

I am now immensely better-informed about swimming than I was previously, I think that for those who do know about it it will be hard to conceive my prior ignorance! I had never heard of Mark Spitz! And also a fog of confusion surrounded my apprehension of the mystery of why there are 25-yard pools, 25-meter pools and 50-meter pools, and more particularly why Columbia for instance does not have an Olympic i.e. 50-meter pool! Fascinating (the Mullen book is especially informative)....

Anyway, thoughts on the different books:

Michael Silver's Golden Girl: How Natalie Coughlin Fought Back, Challenged Conventional Wisdom, and Became America's Olympic Champion has both the strengths and the weaknesses of conventional sports writing. The book has some redundancies (chapters don't seem to have been edited for consistency, so that we are told the same facts again at the beginning of the next chapter without any acknowledgement that the information isn't new), the character studies are a bit pro forma and the narrative arc isn't perhaps quite as compelling as it needed to be--there is simply no way, for instance, to portray Coughlin as an underdog at the outset, though Silver tries to make her shoulder injury do this kind of work. On the other hand, it's a grippingly interesting portrait of collegiate swimming (total through-the-looking-glass effect for me--I know universities really well, and of course this whole world is a closed book to me--a closed book that's rapidly opening its pages, however, which I like...--but it is slightly horrifying to think about how little academics matter from this standpoint!), and Silver is particularly good at writing about Berkeley coach Teri McKeever's unusual coaching style. I think the best chapters in the book are the ones that describe stroke guru Milt Nelms' work with Coughlin, the theory and practice of McKeever's workouts and particularly Coughlin's own uncanny body-awareness and ability to incorporate feedback directly into her stroke. Very interesting stuff, very enjoyable read.

P. H. Mullen's Gold in the Water: The True Story of Ordinary Men and Their Extraordinary Dream of Olympic Glory is a considerably better book than Silver's (he's got a compelling narrative and also a gift for bringing characters to life that Silver simply doesn't have, though Silver has considerable strengths as a writer also), but marred by an awful melodramatic streak that made me crazy while I was reading it! It's such a gripping book, I think almost anybody would find it interesting (and it's immensely well-informed, I learned a huge amount from it about the history of swimming, collegiate and Olympic swimming, etc.), and yet that Hemingwayesque streak of glorification of struggle is disagreeable to me. I buy the arguments about sports and training and character, and yet it seems to me that some slightly more ordinary virtues are also important here, it need not always be a massive existential struggle coming to psychological climax! If I could have cut out the 10% of grandiosity here ("The liminal period is one of the only common experiences that exist in nearly all cultures and religions. . . before the rite of passage is completed, the participant exists in a disordered and marginalized space of confusion"; "When we die, we choose a moment to replay and relive for eternity" [hmm, that seems to me distinctly unlikely!]), and the 10% of slight awfulness, it would have been pretty much the perfect book; as it is, I cannot quite stomach passages like this one:
Competing women are far more intense than competing men. Men pound their chests, fight, and afterward shake hands because it's over. Women are complicated and sharp, like stilettos, and possess a veiled anger that only dies when they want it to.
It's the word "stilettos" that really drives me crazy there, it's the kind of detail that's highly polarizing, some might find it a really sensitive and effective and writerly word choice but it just makes me roll my eyes in horror at the sensibility, how cheap! However, that said, this really is a remarkably good book, I highly recommend it...

The last of three (I'm putting them in backwards order from how I read them, because of course you read the most alluring one first!) is quite wonderful. I couldn't put it down. It's Sherman Chavoor's The 50-meter Jungle: How Olympic Gold MEdal Swimmers are Made (co-authored with Bill Davidson and published in 1973). What a great book! Chavoor coached the great Olympic champion Mark Spitz, and this book is fascinating in its revelations about training and competing in 1960s America, but it's also remarkable for the effectiveness of the voice. Chavoor is brash but hugely sympathetic (not least in his reflections about the anti-Semitism and racism of American swimming in the 1960s). Lots of funny and interesting stuff here, but I will leave you only with the following--Chavoor's clearly enjoying himself being shocking here, even at the time this was highly counterintuitive, but it is in especially hilarious contrast to the nutritional recommendations you get in training manuals these days...
And now I will take myself off with my nice printed-out book manuscript to a location where I have no internet access to tempt me onto triathlon-related lines of inquiry...


  1. I just read the swimming pool article, and I kept thinking there's no way John Cheever's swimmer would make it across town if he happened upon one of those pools in the pictures.

  2. Chavoor was clearly not a precursor to the current "paleo" dietary mold!

    But wait... might fit with some earlier "paleo" diets... how much saturated fat was in mastodon meat?

  3. Apparently I was unclear on the pool of your dreams concept. I had no idea you'd spend three years on your dream pool in order to sell it. Who knew??

    (Glad you enjoyed the swim books!)

  4. "It reads almost like satire (it's the quotations that do it)"

    This is a statement that can be applied generally to most articles in the Times' arts and living sections.