Swimming in Short Stories

The Outdoor Swimmers' Library

Short stories are fictional works that can be read in a single sitting, often with a twist at the end. They are ideal to read in the gaps between swimming.


With a fresh lungful of air, you dive to swim an underwater length of the swimming pool. The first few meters are easy and pleasant. You glide gracefully through the water, following the black lane line and in tune with your inner dolphin.  By half way, air is becoming short, and your dolphin feels more like a barnacle-encrusted turtle.  Your body fights to stay streamlined; your mind struggles to stay calm, burning valuable oxygen with wasted thoughts of ‘are we there yet?’ You look frantically ahead, desperate for the end. Relief floods through you when you see the cross bar a few metres ahead. You’re going to make it!  You touch the wall and push upwards.

Breaking the surface for an explosive breath, you taste salt on your tongue. Reaching for the pool end, your had feels sharp rock. You look around. You’re not in a pool at all, but the ocean. You cling to the edge of a rocky platform, trying to make sense of your circumstance as the ocean breathes you in and out.

The Swimmers - F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Will we swim?”

“And get drowned, my darlings?”

An American banker, living in France with his wife and two children, is advised to visit the seaside to recover from illness. After an initial avoidance of the water, he is taught to swim by a young woman at a beach, and he becomes liberated by his recent ability to swim.  A wonderfully crafted story by the man who said, ‘all good writing is swimming underwater holding your breath’.

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The Swimmer - John Cheever

This short story was part of the inspiration for Roger Deakin’s Waterlog journey around Britain, and so partly responsible for the upwelling of wild swimmers seeping through the landscape. It tells the story of Neddy Merril, who decided one lazy afternoon to swim home from a party via the network of suburban swimming pools.

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The Women - Ray Bradbury

Featured in Ray Bradbury’s book I Sing the Body Electric

On the final afternoon of their holiday, a couple visit a beach.  The woman knows that something lurks in the water waiting for the man to enter, and encourages him to stay on land. Eventually, he falls to the inevitable draw of the sea and goes in for a swim.

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The River Swimmer - Jim Harrison

At 79 pages, this is more a novella than a short story; but we outdoor swimmers are an unconventional lot, so I’m going to include it here. Like his earlier work ‘Dances With Wolves’, there is an aspect of self-location at the heart of this story. Thad, a young American farm boy drawn to water, swims in the river with every chance he can. He encounters beavers, bears, and eventually realises that his swimming has been an unstated search for meaning.  This is a story well worth reading!

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Wild Swimming - Elodie Harper

Earlier this year Elodie Harper won the Stephen King short story award for this wild swimming thriller. Told as a series of emails, the story features a swimmer holidaying by a reservoir in Lithuania. The woman ignores repeated warning not to swim in the reservoir, which contains a drowned village.

Available free online.

Learning to Swim - Graham Swift

Available in Swift’s Learning To Swim and Other Stories

This story tells of the troubled Singleton family’s visit to Cornwall. While Mr Singleton teaches his son to swim, his wife sits on the beach and reflects on the times she has considered leaving her husband. Swift uses swimming as a metaphor for freedom, as perceived by the protagonists of the story (Mother: Will I lose my son if he learns to swim; Father: If my son can swim, I can leave my wife; Son: Am I betraying my mother by learning to swim).

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The Water Was Dark and it Went Forever Down - Tim Winton

Tim Winton is another author who infuses his novels with swimming, surfing, or the coastal life of Western Australia. A teenage girl seeks a reprieve from her alcoholic mother by swimming to an island inhabited only by birds. Throughout her life, swimming has offered a temporary escape from the turmoil at home. On the island, the girl arrives at a solution to her problem.

From Winton’s Minimum of Two. It has also been made into a wonderful short film.

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The Good Humor Man – Rebecca Morris

A young woman spends the languid summer days lazing by the pool and swimming endless lengths while waiting for her divorce to come through. With some excellent descriptions of American pool life in the 1960’s, this story captures both the woman’s acceptance of her circumstance, and the slow, steady steps of moving on.

Difficult to obtain, but may be available if your local library subscribes to The New Yorker.