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Journalist dives into mystery, mechanics of popular sport

Looking for a different workout, one that won't make your back sore? One that combines the aesthetics of solitude and the cardio challenge of a treadmill?

Try swimming.

Lynn Sherr, the broadcast journalist best known for her work on ABC's "2 0/2 0," has written a thoroughly enjoyable book that will whet your appetite. Sherr manages to convey the almost mystical attraction swimmers have for the water, along with subtle and practical pointers from which swimmers of all abilities will benefit.

And who knew the history of swimming was so involved?

Swimming was practiced in ancient civilizations. The Romans, including Caesar, swam. But the sport all but disappeared from European culture in the Middle Ages, thought to be frowned upon by the church and the belief that water was dirty and could make people ill. It was revived in the Renaissance with the help of a booklet in 1587 by cleric Everard Digby called "De Arte Natandi (The Art of Swimming)."

Sherr traces the development of the sport, and the gradual ability of women to shed ridiculous heavy swimming garments in favor of manageable swimsuits. She reports wonderfully the contributions of Annette Kellerman (called "The Perfect Woman" by a Harvard professor) to this cause, and also of the glamour of Esther Williams.

Sherr recounts the great English Channel swimmers and interviews the gifted Lynne Cox and many others. The evolution of suits and the introduction of scientific study to increasing speed, with comments from swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, bring the sport up to date.

Woven throughout the book is Sherr's quest to swim the Hellespont, the strait that separates Europe from Asia in Turkey. The strait played a big role in military history, with Persian king Xerxes crossing into Europe across a bridge made of boats lashed together, and later Alexander the Great crossing into Asia.

The romantic lore of the waterway centers on the Byzantine myth of forbidden love between Leander and Hero, and Leander's nightly swims across the Hellespont to meet with his lover. The romance ended one winter night when he drowned, and Hero then threw herself into the consuming waters.

British Romantic poet Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, wrote about his feat and bragged about it until his death.
Today an annual swim across the strait is held in August, with hundreds of participants. This is the event that Sherr is training for while she spans the globe interviewing and learning from world-class swimmers and coaches.

It's a delightful read, sure to inspire existing swimmers and entice those ready to take the plunge.

Grove Potter is The News' financial editor. He loves the water.

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Swim: Why We Love the Water

By Lynn Sherr

PublicAffairs

232 pages, $25.99