Happy Summer Olympics! In honor of the swimming and diving portions of the Olympics, we are reading The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool by Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen. Here’s an excerpt that contains a few of van Leeuwen’s observations on what makes a body of water a place for swimming—and what swimming and pools mean on a deeper level:
The pool’s form is straightforward and simple, determined by its main modus usandi—swimming and playing. The pool is the architectural outcome of man’s desire to become one with the element of water, privately and free of danger. A swim in the pool is a complex and curious activity, one that oscillates between joy and fear, between domination and submission, for the swimmer delivers himself with controlled abandonment to the forces of gravity, resulting in sensations of weight- and timelessness.
To secure such a high degree of individuality and control, a privately owned piece of water is a prime requisite, yet where such is not available, segments of natural bodies of water may be isolated and identified by the eloquent paraphernalia of the craft of swimming—springboards and ladders, often attached to rafts. A pond, a lake, a river may be changed into a swimming hole by the simple introduction of a springboard, which transforms any kind of water—natural, sacred, or ceremonial—into athletic water…
Springboards have been introduced into the domain of swimming to enhance feelings of abandonment and weightlessness and as launching pads for the swimmer’s eternal game with death. The swimmer is, as Gaston Bachelard worded it, “un être en vertige. Il meurt à chaque minute.” The embrace of water is an erotic one, yet at the same time its cool fingers presage the immediacy of mortality. Eros and Thanatos occupy the two antithetical components of the complex sensation that we call swimming, with diving as its most radical extension, for whereas the swimmer merely challenges fate, the diver insults and bullies it.