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  • Swimming with the Spit: 100 Years of the Spit Amateur Swimming Club ed. by Tanya Evans
  • Ed Jaggard
Evans, Tanya, ed. Swimming with the Spit: 100 Years of the Spit Amateur Swimming Club. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2016. Pp. 208. Notes, illustrations, and index. $49.99 (Aus.), pb.

The front cover of Swimming with the Spit shows Australian Olympic swimmer Murray Rose diving into the sea at the Spit baths on Sydney Harbour's North Shore. It is a racing dive, Rose's body slightly arched parallel to the water, hands and arms outstretched, eyes focused ahead. This is a photo evincing grace, power, and concentration. However, there is [End Page 102] much more, for sitting on gray, sun-baked wooden planking above and behind the diving Rose are nine young girls, watching, admiring. Beneath them, barnacled piles rear up from the sea, marking the boundary between the baths and open water. In several ways, this superbly illustrated local history is a snapshot of Australian swimming prior to the 1970s.

Founded on February 8, 1917, the Spit Amateur Swimming Club, or "the Spit" as it is commonly known, has been in existence for a hundred years, providing lifetime enjoyment for many of its members. Originally formed with separate men's and women's clubs, the two merged in the 1960s, the same decade in which a third section, the Diggers Club, formed by ex-servicemen (some of them limbless) after World War I, reluctantly acknowledged that declining membership compelled its closure. At much the same time, the Spit's home baths, owned at the time by swimming coach Sam Herford, were sold for redevelopment, so the Balmoral Baths in Mosman welcomed the club and its members. "The Spit" remains there today, offering regular Saturday morning competition (handicapped races) to swimmers of all ages and abilities.

Stories about the Spit have often been published in local histories, so the authors regard their objectives to be self-evident: to construct a narrative of growth, development, and sometimes demise. Here, based on an alternative thematic discussion, the editor, public historian Tanya Evans, spells out the objectives—first, to introduce baths swimming in a historical context, to appreciate its past, and to understand the foundations on which a present-day passion is built. But, second, the six authors "plus volunteer research assistants, students and current Spit club members, hope to persuade readers to don their cossies, dive into the ocean and involve themselves with dynamic community organisations such as this one" (13). They succeed, admirably.

Each of the contributors provides lively insights into the club's past: swimming baths around the Harbour's North Shore (Ian Hoskins); the development of swimming costumes (Nancy Cushing); female champions (Tanya Evans); swimmers and sharks (Iain McCalman); musings on pools and coaching (Kate Fullagar); and different bodies, different abilities (Leigh Boucher). What is so appealing about this is that, in each instance, the writer reveals a personal association with the Spit or baths swimming more generally. Indeed, there is a strong sense of these historians being unleashed—encouraged to write with unaccustomed freedom about themselves and their emotions. Consequently, the history is enlivened by personal observations.

For anyone who has swum competitively in a river or sea baths, inside allegedly shark-proof enclosures, many of the descriptions of club life are evocative of that world. Who can forget the gracefully curving (instead of straight) lane ropes, pushed and pulled by chop and current, floating algae, jellyfish, sometimes muddy water, and heavy turning boards that were a danger to the unwary? For this writer, Tuesday night was "club night," age grouped, handicapped 55- and 110-yards events for different strokes, with the starter waving his white handkerchief and chanting the starting times. It is reassuring to find that this world remains alive and flourishing at Balmoral baths and elsewhere.

Throughout the book, an eye-catching collection of color and black-and-white photographs help bring "the Spit" to life. Many are double-page spreads, and their astonishing clarity heightens the sensation of being in whichever "present" is being portrayed, whether on the timber boardwalk, starting a race, or in the water. [End Page 103]

It may be argued...


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