Wading Through Research: An Annotated Interview with Vicki Valosik

There’s no origin story for synchronized swimming. As a sport, its history is less linear as one might expect. In her debut book, Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water, author Vicki Valosik assembles the disparate events that lead to a unified sport. Through deep reporting and an assembly of hundreds of citations, Valosik brings readers into the once-popular-now-niche world of “water ballet,” and unfolds a history of American culture, American women, American competition, and America itself. Swimming history, Valosik finds, is women’s history, and like many other facets of women’s history, it had yet to be told. In this annotated interview, Valosik talks with True about how she dove into an ocean of primary sources and kept her head above the water.

Swimming Pretty is available June 25th

Brandon Arvesen: Let’s start with the widest question. There’s a ton of information in this book. You’ve got so much research packed in. What was your process for approaching all of that information and how did you wrangle it into a shape?

Vicki Valosik: That was the biggest challenge. I’m afraid I don’t have any process that I think anyone should emulate. In the early years of the project, I was a sponge. I just absorbed everything and went down rabbit holes, following my curiosity. For a long time I thought I should be more organized with my research, but I didn’t even know what direction it was going to take. So, for the first few years, I tried to become as knowledgeable as I could. Once I started working on a proposal, I was able to think about the book in terms of chapters.

BA: What was the guiding principle for ordering those chapters?

VV: I honestly couldn’t even think about the book as a whole thing at first. There were just too many pieces. So once I broke it into manageable chunks, the chapters became both thematic and chronological, which was just sort of a lucky coincidence for me. At that point I was able to really start channeling. I began thinking about each chapter as a smaller unit, a manageable unit, and then about how those connected to one another. Finally, I was able to think about how I was going to use information instead of just catching everything coming my way.

BA: Was there a moment when a piece of information steered you in a specific organizational direction?

VV: I do think I experienced a moment that was like, “Okay, this is actually a really interesting story and there are different angles.” I knew Esther Williams had been a champion athlete who didn’t get to go to the Olympics. Then I learned Annette Kellerman had a very similar story; she had been a champion athlete swimmer who found greater opportunity in the world of show business. And then I went back even further, and learned the same about Agnes Beckwith in the 1800s.I realized that there’s this interesting story about the tensions between performance and sport, particularly for women. Performance being the aspect of presenting something with beauty and poise and that being more acceptable than athleticism. That’s when the book became bigger than just tracing how a sport evolved.

From the book: Clara Stuer was in high spirits as she stepped aboard the General Slocum on the morning of June 15, 1904. Filing in behind her from Manhattan’s Third Street Pier, fellow members of St. Mark’s German Lutheran church, their families, and friends were abuzz with anticipation... It would have been hard to say who looked more festive that day--the Slocum, festooned with pennants and flags from stem to stern, or its passengers all dressed in their Sunday finest: women elegant in wide-brimmed hats and long dresses, girls with fluttering ribbons in their hair, and boys in knickerbockers and button-up boots.

From the annotation:
As one of the few survivors, Clara’s interviews were essential for details before, during, and after the Slocum disaster.
Newspapers of the day published eyewitness accounts, artists’ renderings, and survivor stories--all helped in crafting scene.

BA: How did you recreate the sinking of the General Slocum? You have a central character, Clara Stuer, but you walk the reader through multiple points of view on the ship. It’s cinematic.

VV: That all came from newspaper clippings from the days immediately after the disaster—even some written the same night. I knew I wanted to write about the Slocum disaster and then reading through newspaper archives, I stumbled on Clara’s story. It’s important to remember, there were not many survivors, and so to find a young woman who had given direct quotes about her experience was huge. Her decision to undress so she could jump in the water really struck me because that would’ve been an extremely smart thing to do at the time, and not everybody would have the sort of presence of mind to do that in an emergency. The clothing women wore was a big hindrance to being able to even float. I was really drawn to her, especially since I was able to find a few different articles quoting her because she was one of the few survivors. From there I pieced together other witness accounts from the shore, what it looked like to be watching the ship, and adding secondary sources like the report on the disaster that came out about a year later.

BA: What motivated you to craft this scene? There are times where you give us direct information from a source, that is, where you write where a quote was reported. But in this case, you recreate the moment.

VV: I felt like it would be more powerful to readers to be in that moment and the horror of it. With tragedies like that, happening over a hundred years ago, it’s hard to get in that mode of actually being able to truly empathize what the moment would be like. On the surface, it’s horrible; that’s a tragic accident, but to think about how happy these people were to be on a Sunday school excursion and what a big deal it was for these working-class families to take the day off. It just felt like putting people in the moment would make the hindrances that women face with swimming and their clothing and all of that feel more relatable than just relaying it as historical information.

From the book: Fishermen and boaters who had hurried to Slocum’s rescue pulled whoever they could from the water onto their small vessels, but many passengers who jumped or fell overboard never resurfaced. Some were dragged under by the ship’s giant paddle wheels or the death grips of the drowning. Those who had managed to pull a life-jacket down from the ceiling learned too late that the cork they were made of had rotted and the preservers were as useless as sacks of dirt. 

From the annotation: Recreating the fire, the panic, and the disaster brings the historical tragedy into the present. The reader needs to know just how few people (especially women) could swim in 1904.
75% of the Slocum passengers died. And of those that survived, most did so because someone helped them--not because they could swim.

BA: It’s strange to think of a pre-swimming culture. I never thought of a historical America where even people who lived on the water didn’t prioritize learning to swim.

VV: That was so fascinating, and just how common drowning was. Wilbert E. Longfellow [who founded the American Red Cross lifesaving program] was just so sick of reporting on drowning deaths because it was just about every weekend. Multiple drownings a week was just unbelievably common. 

BA: Longfellow is such a compelling character. You include a brief anecdote where he himself nearly drowned twice.

From the book:
Following the Slocum disaster, Longfellow... decided to, “do something about waterfront drownings instead of writing about them” and joined the Rhode Island branch of the US Volunteer Life Saving Corps.” 

Joining the VLSC would turn out to be Longfellow’s first step toward becoming one of swimming’s most influential leaders and colorful figures. However, Longfellow wasn’t a strong swimmer in the beginning and had, in fact, already been rescued twice from near drownings, the second time by a stout woman who hauled him from the water so mattter-of-factly it was as if she was plucking wet laundry out of the washer tub. After that experience, reported a newspaper, the young reporter “drew a deep breath and resolved to learn to swim.”

The annotation:
He will reshape water safety & synchronized swimming!
Did this experience galvanize his advocacy for women? 
She made him feel like his life was so little. She plucked him out of the water so easily.

VV: I found that piece of information very late in the game, and I was so excited. It was just an obscure newspaper clipping. It was an interview with him–it wasn’t even about his life story, it was about his American Red Cross work, and he just mentioned it in passing.

BA: So, when you find a story that late, does it reshape how you craft the rest of the chapter? Longfellow is such an important piece of spreading swimming and swim safety across the country.

VV: I already knew where the chapter was going when I found it, but it did help me. He was such an advocate for women constantly, and it did make me think the anecdote explained a little bit of where his advocacy came from. That’s me projecting. I don’t know if that’s the case. It was just a really fun thing to get to add in late in the game.

BA: Why were you still looking? When do you decide to stop researching and that you have enough to write?

VV: I mean, I could have still been looking as I worked on the final draft! All of it is interesting to me. I just love going into old newspapers and finding things. I’m sure my editor was so fed up, but I was always wanting to add new things. I was trying to find evidence of there being any sort of connection between what happened with the General Slocum and Longfellow’s inspiration to get into lifesaving work. I thought that connection might exist. I really wanted to find it, and I think it was that search when I found his drowning quote. I just have a really bad habit of never stopping researching.

Swimming Pretty Book cover-- an illustration of three women in yellow bathing suits synchronized swimming.

BA: Did you feel a certain pressure or expectation to have as much support as possible because you’re stepping into a long history of this sport?

VV: I did. The book veers toward the academic, so I wanted everything to be backed up. I might’ve over-cited. In fact, my editor at one point told me, “You don’t have to write something and then give primary evidence to support what you wrote every single time.” I was doing that. I’d write, “Here’s what they were saying at the time.” And then I’d be like, “In case you don’t believe me, here’s a quote from a newspaper from 1918.” My editor had to remind me, “We believe you. You’ve established yourself as an expert. You don’t have to do that.” 

I went back and took out a lot of those citations because they can become redundant. If you’re over-citing, quotes tend to lose their power. But yes, I felt really compelled to back everything up. I want to be a reliable narrator. As a researcher, when I read nonfiction, I find generalized sources frustrating. I want to go back and see the original source. If this is going to be a history of the development of the sport that other people can use in the future, I want to leave that breadcrumb trail for other researchers to be able to build on. I really appreciate that as a reader and a researcher.

BA: Your voice doesn’t come across as textbook or academic. Was that a stylistic choice?

VV: I wanted it to be accessible and to reach beyond just academics and synchronized swimmers. That was my goal. But at the same time, I wanted it to be a fully researched book that had citations and could be used for sports history scholars or women’s history scholars. I tried to do both—to fuse academic and creative nonfiction writing.

BA: What do you hope a reader or a researcher would do from this point now that you’ve put this book together? What do you hope the impact will be?

VV: I hope readers will take away just how connected synchronized swimming is to the history of women’s swimming. I think the interconnectedness of this history to women’s sports history, feminist history, swimming history—all these things—is what I’m hoping readers will take away. Synchronized swimming is interwoven with these other important topics. And it’s not just this weird niche thing that only happens in Esther Williams movies or something.

BA: A contemporary reader might always think synchronized swimming has been niche, but your research shows it changed the fabric and culture of America. And it almost didn’t happen! You recreate the moment Katherine Curtis, a lifesaving instructor at the University of Chicago, proved synchronized swimming was a sport in 1927.

From the book: Delegates who had come from the east coast were due to head home from Denver by train the following day, so Leach arranged for them to stop in Chicago and sent [Katharine] Curtis a telegram asking if she could arrange an exhibition. The wire reached her at midnight, but miraculously she managed to pull it together. She arrived at the Chicago Teachers College as soon as the doors opened the next morning so that she could claim a slot at the pool, and left notes on the lockers of her students asking them to participate. Someone saw the notes and got the word out, but Curtis didn’t have time to brief them on the situtation: that the future of the sport depended on the impression they gave the AAU officials.

From the annotation: Curtis would write books about synchronized swimming, but only told this story in an interview for an Army magazine.

This is why in-depth research is so important!

This is the moment synchronized swimming proves itself as a sport. I didn’t want readers to pass over it without feeling the stakes.

BA: This could have been the end, but Katherine Curtis triumphs. When the US joins World War II, she leaves. That moment of history injecting itself into this moment of triumph feels like it’s made to be a story. You give such finite detail too, even like, “The train reached the Chicago station at nine, that cold December morning.” When you do that, does that come from an interview and then if that comes from an interview, do you go and fact check that the train showed up at nine and the temperature of the day? How much digging do you like to do?

VV: I did not check the temperature. I have to be honest. It’s interesting because I am one of those people that really, really likes to go back to the original source at every possible opportunity. You’ll find very few cases in the book of me citing secondary sources, but when it came to people telling their own stories, I kind of trusted those and just cited them as is. And then in cases where what they’ve said is actually questionable, I have to make specific choices.

BA: Can you give an example?

VV: Annette Kellerman is famous for being arrested. I mean, if you just Google “Annette Kellerman,” one of the very first things that will come up is this story about her being arrested for her one piece swimming suit on Revere Beach in Boston. And she herself touted that story. It has been printed as fact in every major newspaper, in academic papers, academic books, biographies, you name it. In the seventies, a researcher tried to verify this and couldn’t, and then everybody just kind of forgot about that and continued to cite it as fact. And then one other researcher in recent years has pointed out the lack of primary sources to support it other than Kellerman herself saying it happened. So in that case, I actually did really kind of unpack that story and dig into it.

BA: What were you trying to unpack?

VV: Why it matters, whether it does or doesn’t matter if the story is true. 

BA: That’s an important decision. Where did you land?

VV: Although I discussed these discrepancies, I personally feel that it doesn’t matter if it really happened because all the circumstances around the story were true. The policing of women’s bodies was true. When there’s evidence that something a subject is saying might not be true, I’m going to make that clear, especially in cases where it’s important to the story. But for something like how cold it was in December in Chicago, I kind of took their word for it, to be honest.

BA: So, when your primary sources are people’s stories, and those stories have outlived the person, we just must accept their lived experience is true enough?

VV: I mean, Curtis said that the men watching got emotional while the swimmers performed to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” They might object to that, but what I have is Curtis’s version of the story, and that’s it. I don’t have Robert Kiphuth’s memory of that moment. So, I feel like all I can do is share it from her perspective and cite her as the source of that information.

From the book: Among the guests were Robert Kiphuth of Yale and Herbert Holm, who had so many years earlier taught Gertrude Titus his swimming stunts. Curtis later said it was “immensely gratifying” to watch the expressions of the delegates while the students swam to a Bach chorale and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as some where “visibly carried away by what they saw.” Kiphuth raved that synchronized swimming had “opened up a marvelous new form of aesthetics,” and Holm said he considered it “every bit as fascinating as diving,”... When the AAU National Convention met again a year later in Philadelphia, the delegates voted to accept synchronized swimming as a full, national-level AAU sport.

From the Annotiation: Robert Kiphuth "Essentially the god of the swimming at the time." Herbert Holm: "Head of the AAU diving committee."
We have to take Curtis at her word here. We have to choose to believe her lived experience.
This is a moment of triumph, a climax in the story.

BA: What didn’t make it in or what did you have to leave out of the book in the end?

VV: The things that were important to me, I kind of forced them to fit–like the uses of synchronized swimming techniques during World War II. I had so much on World War II and synchronized swimming. To me, that’s just this really fascinating topic. My editor was like, “It’s interesting, but I don’t see where it fits.” So I broke it into two chunks and wove it in where I could. I was so determined to have it in there, even if it was at the detriment of the flow of the chapter. But what did I leave out? Probably small things that seemed important at the time like fun quotes from people or funny stories or things that. I hated to see them go, but those things lose their power when there’s just too much of them.

BA: Why was the World War II research so important to you?

VV: I think it’s just so interesting that these synchronized swimming moves were, by the mid-century, considered to be so feminine. Yet at the same time, these exact same moves were being used to prepare men for war. And they weren’t being called “synchronized swimming.” They were called “watermanship” and manly names like that. Women’s performance of synchronized style swimming was called “Aquacade Swimmers,” “Water Ballet,” and the focus was on their beauty and rhythm. And then when men were doing the same moves, they were always framed as “Mer-Marines” demonstrating how you could cross a river with your body held high while you’re carrying a rifle, et cetera. They were using the same techniques, but they were framed so differently as being either masculine or feminine. That was just such a rich and interesting thing that I couldn’t live with not putting it in there.

Brandon Arvesen is one of the editors of true and Assistant Professor of Creative and Professional Writing at Colby Sawyer College.

Vicki Valosik is a masters synchronized swimmer whose writing has appeared in publications such as the Atlantic, Smithsonian magazine, and Slate. She is an editorial director and teaches writing at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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