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Nonfiction Review: The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man's Fight to Capture Olympic Gold by Michael Loynd

Title: The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man's Fight to Capture Olympic Gold
Author: Michael Loynd
Year published: 2022
Category: Adult nonfiction
Pages: 416 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2022 Google Reading map)USA (NY), France, Greece, UK, 

SummaryIn the early twentieth century, few Americans knew how to swim, and swimming as a competitive sport was almost unheard of. That is, until Charles Daniels took to the water.

On the surface, young Charles had it all: high-society parents, a place at an exclusive New York City prep school, summer vacations in the Adirondacks. But the scrawny teenager suffered from extreme anxiety thanks to a sadistic father who mired the family in bankruptcy and scandal before abandoning Charles and his mother altogether. Charles’s only source of joy was swimming. But with no one to teach him, he struggled with technique—until he caught the eye of two immigrant coaches hell-bent on building a U.S. swim program that could rival the British Empire’s seventy-year domination of the sport.

Interwoven with the story of Charles’s efforts to overcome his family’s disgrace is the compelling history of the struggle to establish the modern Olympics in an era when competitive sports were still in their infancy. When the powerful British Empire finally legitimized the Games by hosting the fourth Olympiad in 1908, Charles’s hard-fought rise climaxed in a gold-medal race where British judges prepared a trap to ensure the American upstart’s defeat.

Set in the early days of a rapidly changing twentieth century, The Watermen—a term used at the time to describe men skilled in water sports—tells an engrossing story of grit, of the growth of a major new sport in which Americans would prevail, and of a young man’s determination to excel.

Review: I like that Nonfiction November gets me to read books that I wouldn't normally read. I always enjoy a good sports story, especially if it is one of an underdog overcoming the odds and finding success (think Boys in the Boat, "Remember the Titans" movie). This is one of those books.

Poor Charles really did have a rough time as a young man: he was scrawny, his dad left him and his mother to their own devices in a time when women weren't allowed to work and divorce was unacceptable. Charles wasn't good at sports until he found swimming and even then he had to work really hard as the sport wasn't particularly accepted yet in American society. For goodness sakes, they were still swimming the sidestroke!

I was a competitive swimmer through the first part of college so this book appealed to me on the level of knowing the sport and being interested in how it all came to be. This book has good stories about the physical evolution of the sport (thank you to the Australian Aborigines for early versions of the crawl) as well as how swimming was viewed by the public and by governments/nations in the early 1900s. There are also fun stories about the early Olympics (who attended, what they were awarded, the sports that were available, etc). 

So Charles not only does well with many, many American, Olympic, and World records, but he is credited with the 6-beat kick that we all now use when we swim crawl/freestyle. Pretty amazing.

Challenges for which this counts:
  • Literary Escapes--Greece

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