Picture credit: http://www.netgalley.com
I really do love Alexandra Heminsley. I read her last book (Running Like a Girl) a few months ago and found it so completely inspirational that I started jogging a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for running faded pretty quickly (injury plus having an already dodgy leg) but the book was great and I think it really improved my technique. So, I was expecting great things from Leap In – the story of Heminsley’s journey from could-manage-a-few-laps-of-breaststroke to hard-core sea swimmer. I thought I would immediately be googling wetsuits and finding out where my nearest pool was. I thought I would be filled with confidence at the thought of wearing a swimming costume. I thought I would basically become a part time mermaid. Unfortunately, none of these things happened – which I suppose is good for my bank balance (and legs) but not so much my BMI. It’s a good book, but it just didn’t grab me in the same way that Running Like a Girl did.
Perhaps it’s the slightly less accessible subject matter. Anyone can shove a pair of trainers on and go for a run, but going swimming is a much more considered act. There’s the swimming costume, the hair removal, the finding out when the pool is open…you can’t just put this book down, grab a towel and head off to the baths. Added to this is the fact that Heminsley is not a natural water baby. She gets claustrophobic in a wetsuit. She’s scared of standing in mud. She doesn’t understand goggles. I just didn’t feel that she utterly, thoroughly loved swimming in the same way that she loved running – and as someone who would happily become semi-aquatic I just didn’t engage with these minor concerns.
Luckily, Leap In is brilliantly written. It’s told in Heminsley’s usual hilarious manner and includes some excellent descriptions of what it’s like to wear sportswear when you don’t have a “sporty” physique (not that there is such a thing – what I’m trying to say is – when you have boobs and a bum). Her description of the first time she had to wear a wetsuit is knicker-wettingly funny and the phrases “arse-shelf” and “arse cleavage” will stay with me for a long time. Mixed in with the humour are some very candid passages about being scared to walk out in a swimming costume, being intimidated by men training for triathlons and being paranoid about what is lurking beneath the waves. Heminsley is unfailingly, bravely honest about her own insecurities and foibles which make the story much more interesting and human.
There’s a lot of technical information about such things as techniques for front crawl (seemingly the best stroke for long distance/open water swimming) as well as Heminsley’s own experiences with a range of kit. This might sound a bit dull but she weaves it into her personal narrative so well that it’s easy to get sucked in. At one point I actually found myself acting out front crawl arms as I was reading and quickly had to stop myself from looking like a lunatic. Luckily I was on my own at the time – thank God I wasn’t on public transport!
As a novel, Leap In Is split into two parts – the first being Hemingsley’s own story about learning to swim and the second regarding advice and support for everything from finding out about adult swimming lessons to kit, events and practical advice on everyday swimming issues. This section is really comprehensive and provides a plethora of information. Even if you have no interest in going swimming it’s written in a jovial, friendly tone and is still worth a read (how else will you find out how to conceal a spare tampon if you’re only wearing a wetsuit?)
Leap In really is a snapshot of Heminsley’s life during the time that she learns to swim. She includes some very personal passages about her struggles to conceive, her attempts at IVF and the impact that this has on her body. Far from being just a book about swimming, this is a really touching and intimate portrayal of life as a 30 something woman who just happens to have taken up a new sport. Not as inspirational as Running Like a Girl, but still a great book to read. And if you take it on holiday, who knows – maybe you will just grab a towel and head for the pool.
Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!