Americans: it’s time to reclaim your great swimming heritage | Philip Hoare

Michael Phelps is a hero, but 54% in the US cant swim. From Jack London to Thoreau and Katharine Hepburn, there are many illustrious examples to follow

Isnt there a wonderful irony in our admiration for the feats of US and British swimmers at the Olympics this week? We may applaud gold medalists Michael Phelps and Adam Peaty as they scythe through the pool with exquisite hydrodynamic skill, but 54% of Americans would not pass a basic swim test. Theres a potentially fatal disconnect, it seems, between ourselves and the water.

I feared the pool at school, partly because our teacher was a former army officer whod ignore weaklings like me floundering about with my fingernails dug into a plastic float while the sports heroes earned his encouraging words. As result, I was in my late 20s before I confronted my aquatic demons. Now I swim every day in the sea, winter or summer, rain or snow. This morning I was there in the dark at 4am, looking for shooting stars. For me its not about exercise. Rather, its a subversion, inspired by heroes such as Katharine Hepburn, famous for swimming in the ice off her home in Fenwick, Connecticut. Its stimulating and its fun, she said, because it irritates everybody. It makes them cowards.

Following the example of Miss Hepburn (with whom I once spend a memorable morning in her Upper East Side house, where she tried to feed me crabmeat from a half-open can), I swim off Cape Cod in January, following the advice of the New York Times of 23 August 1883, which recommends the Cape shores to those looking for good surf-bathing, so empty even on a summers day that if one wishes to go in in his bare pelt he may do so without the fear of shocking propriety. I swim there in the summer too, occasionally in the company of John Waters, who hitchhikes to the beach. (We once got a ride in a cop car. John quipped as we got out: Weve been paroled to the beach).

The summer stirs our relationship with the water, and swimming has a noble tradition in the United States, a rebellious republic bound from sea to shining sea. The act of abandoning land and gravity has a sensual, even decadent air. On his 1882 tour of the US, which turned him into an international celebrity, Oscar Wilde spent an extended stay on Fire Island, already fashionable as a resort for New Yorker swimmers. Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper portrayed him in flowing Pre-Raphaelite locks and a daringly tight swimming costume, the ultimate in aesthetic undress. Wildes son said his father swam like a powerful shark. Wilde v Phelps swim-off, anyone?

More obviously macho was Jack London, self-declared blond beast and highest paid author in the world by 1913. An inveterate swimmer, London wrote ecstatically of midnight swims under the starshine in water warm as tepid milk. The good salt taste of it was in his mouth, the tingling of it along his limbs; and the steady beat of his heart, heavy and strong, made him glad for living.

But Henry David Thoreau is my man when it comes to transcendental swims. It was one of the reasons for building his hut at Walden: I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things I did. The philosopher even tried to analysise the colour of the water lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Less idyllically, modern analysis of Walden Pond in midsummer reveals a high volume of human urine.

Swimming was also an essential part of Thoreaus celebrated visits to Cape Cod.

Locals told him there was no bathing on the Atlantic side, on account of the undertow and the rumour of sharks. Undeterred, he continued to swim there, only observing first from the bank if the cove was preoccupied. At Ballston beach, where Ive skinny-dipped in the company of passing humpback whales, Chris Myers was bitten by a great white shark in 2012, sustaining severe injuries to his legs. Only last week, three Cape beaches were closed when great whites were seen feeding on a rotting minke whale a mile off shore.

The author preparing to swim in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in winter. Photograph: Pat de Groot
But what is swimming if not a sublime brush with mortality? Recently, a fisherman showed me a photograph on his phone from Race Point beach. A great white breaks the surf, barely in the water, its teeth around a grey seal. Ouch. As my friend Todd Motta, a tough captain on the Dolphin Fleet whale-watch boat, says: You dont want to go like that, boy. Foolishly, I continue to ignore his advice.

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