Leanne Shapton Pools Her Assets

Reviewing tennis star Tracy Austin’s memoir, David Foster Wallace memorably wrote that the elite athlete must “be blind and dumb about it,” must fundamentally lack the propensity for introversion. (With the Olympics upon us, how many interviews will we be subjected to this summer by an uncomprehending Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps?) Was it the artist in Ms. Shapton that held her back as an athlete?

“I was never an elite athlete,” she replied. “If I’d gone to the Olympics, that’d be one thing, but me getting eighth?” (Her national ranking peaked at eight, and, she notes early in the book, she never placed in the Olympic trials.) “The story is not actually remarkable in a linear way. I don’t think I’m capable of that. I’m not interested in a lot of parts of myself.”

She’s more interested in documenting the world around her. Near the beginning of Swimming Studies, she lists the stresses weighing on eight lanes of swimmers waiting for a race to begin. They’re all composite portraits—Ms. Shapton would never sell out a past competitors’ personal drama, and besides, she’s lost touch with her old swimming cohort. “I was a little bit of an outsider,” she said. “These are girls with Olympic rings on their clothes and Sharpied on their arms! They wore it on their sleeve. And I think you should. I couldn’t—I was a real introvert. I was really interested in art, and there was a lot of stuff I couldn’t talk about. I’m sure I came off as aloof and weird, but I felt like I was on the outside looking in.”

Being on the outside looking in will come in handy in a few weeks, however, when she’s covering the London Olympics for the Canadian press. As an observer of sports, she likes the emotional moments. “Athletes can be really sterile and really straight. Especially in North America, they’re told they should be heroes. But I love it when Serena Williams loses her shit. It’s so honest. I love McEnroe. I love little signs of life that show how hard it is to do what they do.” Ms. Shapton doesn’t lose her shit in Swimming Studies, but she does quit the swimming scene prematurely, decamping to McGill University in Montreal (where she joined the swim team, at a much less competitive level) and then to New York, where she interned at Saturday Night Live and Harper’s and left swimming for good. “I was like, ‘Culture! Gimme culture!’ And I was doing and reading everything, and being really pretentious about it.” As a swimmer, she had designed a shirt for her team, emblazoned with “Veni Vidi Vici”; the praise she received for it meant more at the time, she said, than the swimming medals.

Not that competitive swimming didn’t help her navigate the waters of New York’s creative world. “It gave her a sense of discipline that she’s since applied to her creative endeavours,” said Ms. Shapton’s husband, James Truman, the former editorial director at Condé Nast. “She chose to leave swimming for a broader canvas.

“She has a lot more self-discipline than I do. She decides what she wants to do, and however winding the path is, she does it. I imagine that’s similar to the drive of an athlete.” Mr. Truman added that on their first vacation together, Ms. Shapton challenged him to a race in the pool.

“I came in second.”

Swimming, she seems to acknowledge, made her able to cultivate a spiky individuality—one that her work now allows her to indulge. Participating in the sport fed her creativity by being a foil to it. “Because you’re doing something so boring and repetitive—to survive, you had to be yourself. You’re in pain with other people for four hours a day! When you’re doing something this intense, you can’t fake it.” It was only after some years of separation from the pool, however, that she was able to reset some of her relationships. “I was realizing that female competition is a mess. I’ve kind of grown out of it and I just trust women in a way I didn’t when I was a teenager. I regret that I didn’t. When I love a friend I really do love a friend, and I feel like I missed out on it when I was younger.”

Having been in the heat of that competition, she is well-qualified to generalize about sport. “Athletes are set up to be so conventional,” she said. “None of us are that conventional. We’re all weirdos.”

Leanne Shapton Pools Her Assets