Bonnie Tsui is a journalist, writer at The New York Times, and California Sunday, and author. She has been the recipient of the Jane Rainie Opel Young Alumna Award from Harvard University, the Lowell Thomas Gold Award, and a National Press Foundation Fellowship.
If you've been swimming since you were a child, you probably don't think too much about it anymore. But when you take a step back, the human act of swimming is a pretty interesting thing. You weren't born knowing how to swim; it's not instinctual. So why are people so naturally drawn to water? And what do we get out of paddling around in it?My guest today explores these questions in her book Why We Swim. Her name is Bonnie Tsui, and we begin our conversation today with how humans are some of the few land animals that have to be taught how to swim, and when our ancestors first took to the water. We then discuss how peoples who have made swimming a primary part of their culture, have evolved adaptations that have made them better at it. We discuss how swimming can be both psychically and physically restorative and how it can also bring people together, using as an example a unique community of swimmers which developed during the Iraq War inside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. We also talk about the competitive element of swimming, and how for thousands of years it was in fact a combat skill, and even took the form of a martial art, called samurai swimming, in Japan. We end our conversation with how swimming can facilitate flow, and some of the famous philosophers and thinkers who tuned the currents of their thoughts while gliding through currents of water. Get the show notes at for privacy information.
Bonnie Tsui is a journalist and author of the new book Why We Swim. “I am a self-motivated person. I really don’t like being told what to do. I’ve thought about this many times over the last 16 years that I’ve been a full-time freelancer... even though I thought my dream was to always and forever be living in New York, working in publishing, working at a magazine, being an editor, writing. When I was an editor, I kind of hated it. I just didn’t like being chained to a desk.” Thanks to Mailchimp and Pitt Writers for sponsoring this week's episode. @bonnietsui [02:34] Why We Swim (Algonquin • 2020) [03:50] American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods (Tsui • Free Press • 2009) [11:02] The Deep (2012) [28:25] "With His Absence, My Artist Father Taught Me the Art of Vanishing" (Catapult • Feb 2019) [42:11] "After Fires, Napa and Sonoma Tourism Industry Is Getting Back on Its Feet" (New York Times • Oct 2017) [45:04] "Child Care: What — and Who — It Takes to Raise a Family" (California Sunday • July 2019) [49:38] "The Break: Female Big-Wave Surfers Prepare to Compete on Mavericks’s 50-Foot Waves for the First Time" (California Sunday • Aug 2018) [50:46] "Meet the Women Who Are Changing What it Means to be a Mom and a Professional Athlete" (Sports Illustrated • Dec 2019) [54:03] "You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything" (New York Times • June 2019)
Unlike most other animals, humans have to be taught to swim, and yet many of us feel an irresistible pull to the water. There’s something about submerging ourselves that makes us feel very much alive—even as we enter an environment where the risk of death is suddenly all around us. (That’s why the lifeguard is watching.) In her new book, Why We Swim, journalist Bonnie Tsui explores how this unique sport rekindles the survival instincts we inherited from our ancestors, heals some of our deepest wounds, and connects us with a wider community even as we stroke silently alongside each other. In this episode, Tsui guides us through the remarkable tales of an Icelandic fisherman forced to swim for his life, an athlete who found new life by diving into the ocean, and a swim club that sprung up in the middle of a war zone.
Take the plunge into an episode on all things aquatic with Bonnie Tsui, whose new book, Why We Swim, dives into swimming history while offering poetic contemplation on the nature of this physical pursuit. The incredible characters in this book—including an Icelandic fisherman who defied death in the ice-cold sea, a Bay Area-based open water marathoner Kim Chambers, Olympic sprinting phenom Dara Torres, and practitioners of the Japanese nihon eiho tradition—provide the jumping off points for this discursive chat between Tsui and co-host Susie Gerhard.
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Creator Details

Berkeley, California, United States of America
Episode Count
Podcast Count
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4 hours, 19 minutes
Podchaser Creator ID logo 454636