History of the Sport of Swimming
USA Swimming History
When Flying Gull winged past Tobacco, swimming the length of a 130 foot pool in thirty seconds, Londoners were flabbergasted. The year was 1844, and swimming was already established as a popular competitive sport in England. But British athletes generally relied on the graceful looking breaststroke for traveling in the water, and were rather shocked at the exhibition staged by this group of North American Indians that had been invited to London by the Swimming Society in England.
One observer found their swimming "totally un-European," declaring that the Indians "thrashed the water violently with their arms, like sails of a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and forming grotesque antics." Even though the style of Flying Gull and Tobacco was considerably faster, it was not copied, and British swimmers continued paddling along in their accustomed manner. It was not until some forty years later that the Indians' "totally un-European" style was reintroduced as the crawl: a stroke so rapid that it revolutionized competitive swimming.
Yet this revolutionary advancement was really centuries old. The original inhabitants of the Americas, West Africa and some Pacific islands had been using a the of crawl for generations. While Europeans had limited their swimming to the breaststroke and side strokes essentially modifications of what must have been man's first method of keeping his head above water: today known as the doggie paddle learned from animals. Although this four legged paddling style came naturally to many animals, it was at best for man a churning, thrashing and tiring means of getting from one bank of a river to the other.
Mosaics and drags from early Middle Eastern civilizations depict men swimming with the "dog stroke", as do mosaics at Pompeii. Although swimming was not included in the ancient Olympic Games, the Greeks practiced the sport, holding it in high regard, as they did all athletic endeavors. In fact, one of the worst insults a Greek could say to another was to discuss him as a man who "neither knew how to run or swim."
Plato considered a man who didn't know how to swim uneducated.
There are frequent representations of swimmers in the Vatican, Borgian and Bourbon codices, and the murals of the Tepantitla House at Teotihuacan (near Mexico City) showed men splashing about the waters of "Tlalocan," paradise of Tlaloc, the god of water. Both Julius Caesar and Charlemagne were known as great swimmers, and Louis XI frequently took swims in the Seine.
By 1837 regular swimming competitions were being held in London, organized by the National Swimming Society in England, and there were about six artificial pools in the city. As the sport grew in popularity many more pools were built, and when a new governing body, the Amateur Swimming Association of Great Britain, was organized in 1880, it numbered more than 300 member clubs. Despite any impression Flying Gull and Tobacco may have made with their "windmill thrashing," the English continued to use the breaststroke. They swam it in the traditional manner, with the arms underwater, pulling out and back from the chest, coordinated with a frog kicking motion.
In a time when endurance exploits were prized higher than races against time, the supreme test was the English Channel - the Channel was considered impossible to swim. On August 24, 1875, Captain Matthew Webb slipped into the water at Dover, England, and 21 hours and 45 minutes later touched land at Cape Gris Nez, France, becoming the first man to conquer the English Channel. Relying mainly on the breaststroke, he swam some 38 miles in covering a straight-line distance of about 20 miles.
It wasn't an uneventful trip. Along the way, Captain Webb sang, sipped coffee and beer, ate steaks, was stung by a jellyfish and had to fight his way through a nasty storm.
It was 31 years before another successful crossing by Burgess. Sullivan was the first American. The present record for the swim is 10 hours 50 minutes, set in 1950 by an Egyptian, Hassan Abdel Rehim. While Flying Gull and Tobacco failed to make English swimmers speed conscious, some South American Indians - indirectly - succeeded. During a trip to South America, J. Arthur Trudgen noticed that the Indians generated much more speed in the water with their overhand stroke than he had produced with the breaststroke as an amateur swimmer in England. But he apparently failed to note that this overhand stroke was coupled with a distinctive up-and-down kicking motion. Historians dispute the time of Trudgen's trip, dating it anywhere from the 1870's to the 1890's. But most importantly, upon his return to England, Trudgen began teaching others the new arm movement. Even though swimmers continued using the frog kick of the breaststroke, the overhand arm action gave them significantly more speed and power. Using the Trudgen stroke-as it came to be called-swimmers whittled the record for the 100 yards down from about 70 seconds to 60 seconds.
Trudgen's teachings turned the swimming emphasis from endurance to speed, but the revolution was only half complete. The leader in the rest of the battle was another Englishman, Frederick Cavill. Using the traditional breaststroke, Cavill became a well known swimmer in England, and in 1878 immigrated to Australia, where he built pools and taught swimming. Just before the turn of the century, Cavill and his family, which included six sons, made a trip to some of the islands of the South Seas. Like Trudgen, he noticed that the natives used an overhand stroke. But Cavill was more observant; he realized that their kicking action was also different, and he closely studied it. Returning to Australia, Cavill taught his sons the new stroke, and they soon were splashing past all existing records. One of the sons, Richard, went to England in 1902 and swam the 100 yards in 58.8, a time his competition, using the less powerful Trudgen stroke, couldn't approach.
Asked to describe the revolutionary style, one of the Cavills said it was "like crawling through the water." Gradually it became known as the crawl, and only somewhat modified is the freestyle stroke used today, the basis of swimming competitions.
Cavilís sons were efficient evangelists, and their stroke soon became widely adopted. One son, Sidney, went to San Francisco, California, in 1903 to coach at the Olympic Club. An early pupil, J. Scott Leary, became the first American to swim 100 yards in 80 seconds, and won 17 consecutive races. Charles M. Daniels, who before Leary's debut had been the U.S.'s leading swimmer, studied the new stroke and eventually came up with his "American" crawl. Daniels went on to win four gold medals in the Olympic Games and shaved the world record for the 100 yards to 54.8 seconds in 1910. A few years later, when Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii began out swimming all international competition, someone asked who had taught him the crawl stroke. Kahanamoku, winner of the Olympic 100 meter race in 1912 and 1920, replied, "No one." He had learned the crawl as a child by watching how the older natives of his home island swam, where, he said, the stroke had been used for "many, many generations." Kahanamoku set his records using a six beat cycle, which is now considered the classical freestyle form. Each complete cycle of his arms entering the water, pulling and recovering--was accompanied by six flutter kicks.
At the 1924 Paris Games, a gangly, 20 year old American named Johnny Weissmuller pounded past Kahanamoku with this same six beat cycle, winning the 100 meters in the Olympic record time of 59 seconds flat. Weissmuller picked up two more gold medals at the same Games, and won two at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. The 1920's were the Golden Age of Sports and Weissmuller was its golden swimmer. He set world records in 67 different events, from 50 yards to 880 yards, before trading swimming for swinging through trees and even greater fame as Hollywood's most durable Tarzan. The basic, six-beat-cycle crawl of Kahanamoku's and Weissmuller's day has changed little; Don Schollander of the United States was using it when he splashed to four gold medals at the 1864 Tokyo Olympics. At the first modem Olympic Games in 1896 only the freestyle events were held, with the competitors relying on various interpretations of the breast or Trudgen stroke. In 1900 a backstroke event was added, and with the crawl becoming the dominant freestyle form, the breaststroke was made a separate competition in 1904. Women's freestyle races were first included in the 1912 Games, and eventually their events grew to include all the regular competition strokes. The breaststroke was done in the traditional manner until the early 1930's, when some swimmers discovered that they could get an extra boost going into the turns by digging into the water with a double overhead arm stroke. The coach at Iowa University of the United States, Dave Armbruster, and one of his swimmers, Jack Seig, toyed with this "butterfly" arm action and developed a new kick to go with it called the "dolphin" - a sort of undulating motion from hips to the toes.
Originally the butterfly was considered unusual, because it was too tiring to swim for any distance. But it proved to be considerably faster than the conventional breaststroke, and by 1938 swimmers using the butterfly arm action, often combined with the usual frog kick, were dominating breaststroke races. Eventually, in 1953, they were made into separate competitions; the breaststroke became known as the "silent stroke," for swimmers found that they could make much better time underwater than on top. It was faster, but hard on the lungs.
Breaststrokers stayed underwater as long as possible and some either passed out or finished races rather blue in the face. A few years later, the rules were again changed, so that the breaststroke had to be swum with the head out of the water. The butterfly was first raced as a separate Olympic competition at the 1956 Melbourne Games, and today is usually swum using the dolphin kick. Since its first appearance at the 1900 Olympic Games, the backstroke has changed little. It is the only swimming competition that starts with a push off the wall of the pool instead of a dive. Its leg action is essentially an upside-down variation of the crawl's flutter kick, with the arms reaching up and out of the water. Adolph Kiefer, who dominated backstroke swimming from 1935 to 1945, got his thrust by pulling with his arms held straight in the water. But recently Australian backstrokers discovered that they could get more horizontal thrust by slightly bending the arm as it came around underwater, and other swimmers have generally adopted their style.
New training methods have helped track and field athletes reach astonishing levels of performance in recent years, and many of the same techniques have made modern swimming records fragile as soap bubbles. "Tarzan" Johnny Weissmuller, conqueror of elephants, apes and numerous swimming marks, today could be beaten at any distance over 100 meters by a 13 year old California school girl, Sue Pederson. The women's record in the 1,500 meters freestyle is now less than the men's mark of fifteen years ago. Records and the ages of leading swimmers seem to be shrinking at an equally heady pace.
Return to: Through
Return to: Swimming Home Page