Deep Dive: Kim Fairley's new memoir recalls how she grew up “Swimming for My Life”


Author Kim Fairley and her book Swimming for My Life

Swimming was not just swimming for Ann Arbor author and visual artist Kim Fairley.

The sport was layered with physical challenges, abuse from coaches, and family expectations that exceeded what was reasonable, all of which she depicts in her new memoir, Swimming for My Life.

At the start of her book, Fairley shares an early, positive memory of swimming at the beach where she struggled in the waves and remembers, “The ocean reverberated in my head, but when I glanced up at Dad, I saw his pride: my daughter, my oldest.” Following that experience, Fairley’s parents encouraged her to join a swim team in third grade in Cincinnati where she grew up. While Fairley did not immediately love swimming even back then, her attempts to stop were not heard even though she tried to tell her father:

“I don’t like it at all,” I told him. “The water’s freezing cold and I hate the chlorine.” It also seemed that at nine I was one of the youngest in my age group, playing catch-up with kids who’d learned to float before they could talk. 

Dad’s head dropped. When he lifted it, he looked dejected. I think he thought my failure would be his failure. “I want you to give swimming another try. You’re not a quitter. This is a winning family. And you’re the oldest. At least finish the season.”

From that day on, I walked around with a worried look. And I’m not making this up. That look would plague me for decades to come, with random strangers stopping to ask me, “What’s wrong?”—which, invariably, would bring me back to swimming. I think of the furrowed brow as muscle memory, the way a crumpled piece of paper forever shows its lines. 

Being forced to please her father and then coaches sent Fairley down a path of pushing her body to the extreme and also dealing with neglect on the part of people who were supposed to look out for her, including her parents. 

With those dynamics, swimming became both an escape and torture for Fairley. She writes, “Our home life wasn’t pleasant. And things weren’t pleasant at the pool, either. They were downright dysfunctional.” She encountered numerous challenges, from being able to get rides to practice to suffering a knee injury. Yet, she did not quit because swimming brought admiration from her parents and eventually a college scholarship that was also her ticket out of an inconsistent and unpredictable home life. Swimming took Fairley far, from beating national records to college in California and a trip to Japan, but her family dynamic haunted her. She reflects on a visit home in college: 

I lay with my back to the TV, trying to block out the tension, but grief from feeling trapped doesn’t get up and leave. It sits on your shoulders, weighing down your heart. I knew I could escape to California, but unlike the first time I left home, the realization was finally sinking in that this was my family. My life. 

Yet Fairley came to believe “… swimming wasn’t everything—that it was only a means to an end and not the end itself.” 

Swimming for My Life comes after last fall’s release of Fairley's previous memoir, Shooting Out the Lights. Pulp talked with the author about her latest memoir. 

Q: It is great to talk with you again! Last time, we spoke about your book Shooting Out the Lights and now your next book, Swimming for My Life, was published this October. How was writing this book different from your earlier book? 
A: When I switched back and forth from the swimming story to the early marriage story, I switched back and forth in time, which gave me an emotional reprieve. The two stories are very different. My swimming experience was during my childhood and the other is more about my life as a young adult, newly married. 

Q: Previously you said you were working on these two memoirs for 12 years. Did you go back and forth between writing one or the other? What was it like writing two books at once? 
A: When I write, I touch on some very emotional topics that sometimes drain me. I find it refreshing to work on a book for a few years and then set the book aside and write something else. It’s the only way I can remain strong enough to write.

Q: Swimming for My Life centers on your swimming career, family dynamic, and relationships with coaches and teammates. Both of your memoirs consider how the behavior and feelings of others influenced you. How do you go about deciding what to share in your memoirs? 
A: It’s tricky deciding what scenes to share and what to keep to myself when I write. I often ask myself: Will the readers get something out of this story that might be helpful to them? If yes, I will include the scene. If not, unless it advances the story in some way, I often delete it. 

Q: For you, swimming was not a voluntary activity done out of passion, given that your parents got you started with it and wanted you to keep participating. At the same time, the absence of your parents who traveled for work weighed heavily on you and your siblings. You write, “Over time, Mom and Dad had convinced me that nothing we did for them could keep them home.” Swimming and family life are intertwined in the book. What did you learn about your experience from writing about it? 
A: One thing I learned was that it was almost impossible to separate swimming from family life. It’s a matter of time allocation. If a sport absorbs most of the available family time, the sport becomes more important than parents or family in a child’s life.

What I learned is that writing a memoir is not therapy, at least for me. Writing a memoir involves taking what is learned in therapy and connecting it to the actual event so readers can follow you on the road from experience to recovery.

Q: The trauma that you sustained from your family and swimming became more and more apparent as you grew older. Even though it was not therapy, did writing this book contribute to recovering from the trauma? How has your view of swimming changed through writing this book? 
A: I wouldn’t say that writing the book contributed to recovering from trauma, but I discovered that swimming had played more of a part in my life than I realized. I also discovered that some of the stories I’d replayed over and over in my mind had changed over time with my adult perspective. Time has a wonderful way of smoothing out the hard edges. 

Q: In your acknowledgments, you thank the Ann Arbor Area Writers. What has your engagement with the group involved? 
A: The Ann Arbor Area Writers have been instrumental in helping me develop as a writer. I started meeting with them in 2010 when I stumbled into them one night at the old Borders Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. After a few nights, I was hooked. The group met twice a week, and this was an opportunity to read chapters in front of others and receive feedback—sometimes brutal feedback but feedback nonetheless—which was very helpful. When you have a group reading your work, and providing positive feedback, it can be so much more inspiring to sit at the desk and write. 

[They] have helped me become a much stronger writer and also have helped me toughen up when others don’t particularly like what I have to say. They don’t pull punches. The more we share of our work, the more we understand how to broaden our writing by going deeper. 

Q: Now that a year has gone by since I last asked this question, what are you reading and recommending these days?
A: For the past few months, I have been in promotion mode, but I am anxious to read two books about swimming: The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway and The Watermen by Michael Loynd. Also sitting on my desk is a novel called Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress.

Q: With both of your memoirs published, what will your next project be? 
A: Since having a book published can be destabilizing, I’d like to rest and take a break from writing. For the past 14 years, my work has been all-consuming. I’m hoping to take some time off to refresh, visit family, and recover my equilibrium. 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.