History of Swimming

Swimming has been known since prehistoric times. Drawings from the Stone Age were found in "the cave of swimmers" near Wadi Sora (or Sura) in the southwestern part of Egypt. Written references date from 2000 B.C., including Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible (Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42, Isaiah 25:11), Beowulf, and other sagas. In 1538 Nicolas Wynman, German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book, "Colymbetes". Competitive swimming in Europe started around 1800, mostly using breaststroke. The front crawl, then called the trudgen, was introduced in 1873 by John Arthur Trudgen, copying it from Native Americans. Swimming was part of the first modern Olympic games in 1896 in Athens. In 1902 the trudgen was improved by Richard Cavill, using the flutter kick. In 1908, the world swimming association, Federation Internationale de Natation de Amateur (FINA), was formed. Butterfly was first a variant of breaststroke, until it was accepted as a separate style in 1952.

Ancient Times

Drawings from the Stone Age were found in "the cave of swimmers" near Wadi Sora (or Sura) in the southwestern part of Egypt near Libya. These pictures seem to show breaststroke or dog paddle, although it may also be possible that the movements have a ritual meaning unrelated to swimming. This cave is also featured in the movie The English Patient. An Egyptian clay seal dated between 4000 B.C. and 9000 B.C. shows four swimmers who are believed to be swimming a variant of the front crawl. More references to swimming are found in Babylonian bas-reliefs and Assyrian wall drawings, depicting a variant of the breaststroke. The most famous drawings were found in the Kebir desert and are estimated to be from around 4000 B.C. The Nagoda bas-relief also shows swimmers dating back from 3000 B.C. The Indian palace Mohenjo Daro from 2800B.C. contains a swimming pool sized 30m by 60m. The Minoan palace Minos of Knossos in Crete also featured baths. An Egyptian tomb from 2000 B.C. shows a variant of the front crawl. Depictions of swimmers were also found from the Hittites, Minoans, and other Middle Eastern civilizations, the Incas in the Tepantitla House at Teotihuacan, and in mosaics in Pompeii.

Written references date back to 2000 B.C. including Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible (Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42, Isaiah 25:11), Beowulf, and other sagas, although the style is never described. There are also many mentions of swimmers in the Vatican, Borgian and Bourbon codices.

The Greeks did not include swimming in the ancient Olympic Games, but practiced the sport, often building swimming pools as part of their baths. One common insult in Greece was to say about somebody that he/she neither knew how to run nor swim. The Etruscans at Tarquinia (Italy) show pictures of swimmers in 600 B.C., and tombs in Greece depict swimmers 500 B.C. The greek Scyllis was taken prisoner on a ship of the Persian king Xerxes I in 480 B.C. After learning about an impending attack on the Greek navy, he stole a knife and jumped overboard. During the night and using a snorkel made from reed, he swam back to the ships and cut them loose. It was also said that the ability to swim saved the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, while the Persians all drowned when their ships were destroyed. Julius Caesar was also known to be a good swimmer. A series of reliefs from 850 B.C. in the Nimrud Gallery of the British Museum show swimmers, mostly in military context, often using swimming aids.

In Japan swimming was one of the noble skills of the Samurai, and historic records describe swimming competitions in 36 B.C. organized by emperor Suigui (spelling unclear), which are the first known swimming races.

The Germanic folklore describes swimming, which was used successfully in wars against the Romans. Swimming competitions are also known from that time.

Middle Ages to 1800

Swimming was initially one of the seven agilities of knights during the Middle Ages, including swimming with armour. However, as swimming was done in a state of undress, it became less popular as society became more conservative, and it was opposed by the church at the end of the middle ages. For example, in the 16th century, a German court document in the Vechta prohibited the naked public swimming of children. Leonardo da Vinci made early sketches of lifebelts. In 1538 Nicolas Wynman, German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book "Colymbetes". His goal was not exercise, but rather to reduce the dangers of drowning. Nevertheless, the book contained a very good and methodical approach to learning breaststroke, and includes swimming aids like air filled cow bladders, reed bundles, or cork belts. Around the same time, E. Digby in England also wrote a swimming book, claiming that humans can swim better than fish.

In 1603 the first national swimming organization was established in Japan. TEmperor Go-Yozei of Japan declared that school children should swim.

In 1696, the French author Thevenot wrote "The Art of Swimming", describing a breaststroke very similar to the modern breaststroke. This book was translated into English and became the standard reference of swimming for many years to come.

In 1708, the first known lifesaving group "Chinkiang Association for the Saving of Life" was established in China. In 1796 a (still existing) swimming club was founded in Upsala, Sweden. Benjamin Franklin is credited with the invention of the swimming fins at the age of ten, in 1716.

In 1739 Guts Muts (also spelled as Guts Muth) from Schnepfenthal, Germany, wrote "Gymnastik für die Jugend" (Exercise for the youth), including a significant portion about swimming. In 1794 Kanonikus Oronzio de Bernardi of Italy wrote a two volume book about swimming, including floating practice as a prerequisite for swimming studies. In 1798 Guts Muts wrote another book "Kleines Lehrbuch der Schwimmkunst zum Selbstunterricht" (Small study book of the art of swimming for self study), recommending the use of a "fishing rod" device to aid in the learning of swimming. His books describe a three step approach to learn swimming that is still used today. First, get the student used to the water, second, practice the swimming movements out of the water, third, practice the swimming movements in the water. He believed that swimming is an essential part of every education.

More lifesaving groups were established in 1767 (1768?) in Amsterdam by the Dutch, 1772 in Copenhagen, and in 1774 by Great Britain. In 1768 a humane society was established in the United States.

The Haloren, a group of salt makers in Halle, Germany, greatly advanced swimming through setting a good example to others by teaching their children swimming at a very early age.

The Pre-Olympic Era to 1896

In 1804 the lifebelt was invented by W. H. Mallison (America?), the device being known at that time as the "Seaman’s Friend". However, the lifebelts took up valuable space on ships, and the United States Navy was worried about the devices being used by sailors to desert.

The first German swimming club was founded in 1837 in Berlin. A journal mentions "swimming skates" in France, which may be an early version of a surfboard.

One watershed event was a swimming competition in 1844 in London. Some Native Americans participated in this competition. While the British raced using breaststroke, the Native Americans swam a variant of the front crawl, which has been used by people in the Americas, West Africa and some Pacific islands for generations, but was not known to the British. As the front crawl is a much faster style than the breaststroke, the Americans won against the British competition. Flying Gull won the medal, swimming the 130 feet in 30 seconds; the second place was also won by another American named Tobacco. Their stroke was described as making a motion with the arms "like a windmill" and kicking the legs up and down. As this produced considerably splashing, it was considered barbaric and "un-European" to the British gentlemen, who preferred to keep their heads over the water. Subsequently, the British continued to swim only breaststroke until 1873.

The first indoor swimming pool was built in England in 1862. An Amateur Swimming Association of Great Britain was organized in 1880 with more than 300 members. The main swimming styles were the breaststroke and the recently developed sidestroke. In the sidestroke, the swimmer lies on one side. Initially, the arms were brought forward under water, but this was soon modified to bring the arm forward over water to reduce resistance and to improve the speed, resulting in an overarm sidestroke. The legs were squeezed together in a scissor style. In 1895, J. H. Thayers of England swam 100 yards in a record-breaking 1:02.50 using a sidestroke.

In 1873 John Arthur Trudgen reintroduced the front crawl to England. Trudgen learned the stroke from Native Americans during a trip to South America (the exact date, however, is disputed and may be anywhere between 1870 and 1890). This stroke, a variant of the front crawl, was then called the Trudgen or Trudgeon. The arms were brought forward, alternating while the body rolled from side to side. The kick was a scissors kick, with one kick for two arm strokes, although it is believed that the Native Americans did indeed do a flutter kick and Trudgen mistakenly used the (in Britain) more common breaststroke kick. Variants used different ratios of scissor kicks to arm strokes, or alternated with a flutter (up-and-down) kick. The speed of the new stroke was demonstrated by F. V. C. Lane in 1901, swimming 100 yards in 1:00.0, an improvement of about ten seconds compared to the breaststroke record. This style is the first European version of the front crawl, the fastest swimming style known today. Due to its speed the Trudgen became very quickly popular around the world, despite all the ungentlemanlike splashing.

Captain Matthew Webb was the first man to swim the English channel (between England and France), in 1875. He used breaststroke, swimming 21.26 miles in 21 hours and 45 minutes. No other man or woman swam the channel for the next 31 years. He died in 1882 while attempting to swim the Niagara Falls. The first European amateur swimming competitions were in 1889 in Vienna.

In 1879 Louis III of Bavaria built a swimming pool in castle Linderhof. This is believed to be the first artificial wave pool and also featured electrically heated water and light.

Synchronized swimming started in the late 19th century, and the first competition was in 1891 in Berlin, a men's-only event.

The Modern Olympic Era after 1896

The Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, a male-only competition (see also Swimming at the 1896 Summer Olympics). Six events were planned, but only four events were actually contested: 100 m, 500 m, and 1200 m freestyle and 100 m for sailors. The first gold medal was won by Alfred Hajos of Hungary in 1:22.20 for the 100m freestyle. Hajos was also victorious in the 1200 m event, and was unable to compete in the 500 m, which was won by Austrian Paul Neumann. Another swimming competition of 100m for sailors included three Greek sailors in Bay of Zea near Piraeus, starting from a rowing boat. The winner was Ioannis Malokinis in two minutes and 20 seconds. A 1500m race was also performed.

In 1897 Capt. Henry Sheffield designed a rescue can or rescue cylinder, now well known as the lifesaving device in Baywatch. The pointed ends made it slide faster though the water, although it can cause injuries.

The second Olympic games in Paris in 1900 featured 200m, 1000m, and 4000m freestyle, 200m backstroke , and a 200m team race (see also Swimming at the 1900 Summer Olympics). There were two additional unusual swimming events (although common at the time) : an obstacle swimming course in the Seine river (swimming with the current), and an underwater swimming race. The 4000m freestyle was won by John Arthur Jarvis in under one hour, the longest Olympic swimming race ever. The backstroke was also introduced to the Olympic games in Paris, as was water polo. The Osborne Swimming Club from Manchester beat club teams from Belgium, France and Germany quite easily.

The Trudgen was improved by the British-born Australian swimming teacher and swimmer Richard (Fred, Frederick) Cavill. Like Trudgen, he watched natives from the Solomon Islands, using front crawl. But different from Trudgen, he noticed the flutter kick, and studied it closely. He used this new flutter kick instead of the breaststroke or scissor kick for the Trudgen. He used this stroke in 1902 at an International Championships in England to set a new world record by outswimming all Trudgen swimmers over the 100 yards in 0:58.4 (some sources say it was his son in 0:58.8). He taught this style to his six sons, each becoming a championship swimmer. The technique became known as Australian crawl up to 1950, when it was shortened to crawl, technically known as front crawl.

The Olympics in 1904 in St. Louis included races over 50 yards, 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and one mile freestyle, 100 yards backstroke and 440 yards breaststroke, and the 4*50 yards freestyle relay (see also Swimming at the 1904 Summer Olympics). These games differentiated between breaststroke and freestyle, so that there were now two defined styles (breaststroke and backstroke) and freestyle, where most people swam Trudgen. These games also featured a competition to plunge for distance, where the distance without swimming, after jumping in a pool, was measured.

In 1907 the swimmer Annette Kellerman from Australia visited the United States as an "Underwater Ballerina", a version of Synchronized swimming, diving into glass tanks. She was arrested for indecent exposure, as her swimsuit showed arms, legs and the neck. Kellerman changed the suit to have long arms and legs, and a collar, still keeping the close fit revealing the shapes underneath. She later starred in several movies, including one about her life.

In 1908, the world swimming association Federation Internationale de Natation de Amateur (FINA) was formed.

Women were first allowed to swim in the Olympic Games in 1912 in Stockholm, competing in freestyle races. (Women could participate in golf and tennis since 1900 in Paris). In the 1912 games, Harry Hebner of the United States won the 100m backstroke. At these games Duke Kahanamoku from Hawaii won the 100m freestyle, having learned the six kicks per cycle front crawl from older natives of his island. This style is now considered the classical front crawl style. The men's competitions were 100m, 400m, and 1500m Freestyle, 100m backstroke, 200m and 400m breaststroke, and four by 200m freestyle relay. The women’s competitions were 100m freestyle and four by 100m freestyle relay.

On 28 July 1912, a 800m long bridge between Binz and Rügen, Germany collapsed under the load of 1000 people waiting for a cruise steamer Kronprinz Wilhelm. Sailors of the German navy were able to save most people, but 17 people died because they could not swim, including seven children. This catastrophe caused the foundation of the Deutsche Lebens-Rettungs-Gesellschaft (DLRG) (German lifesaving organization) on October 19 1913 in Leipzig. In the same year the first elastic swimsuit was made by the sweater company Jantzen.

In 1922, Johnny Weissmuller became the first person to swim the 100m in less than a minute, using a six kicks per cycle Australian crawl. Johnny Weissmuller started the golden age of swimming and was the world's most famous swimmer, winning five Olympic medals and 36 national championships and never losing a race in his ten-year career, until he retired from swimming and started his second career as Tarzan. His record of 51 seconds in 100 yard freestyle stood for over 17 years. In the same year, Sybil Bauer was the first woman to break a men’s world record over the 440m backstroke in 6:24.8.

At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, lane dividers made of cork were used for the first time, and lines on the pool bottom aided with orientation.

1928 was the start of the scientific study of swimming by David Armbruster, coach at the University of Iowa, filming underwater swimmers. The Japanese also used underwater photography to research the stroke mechanics, and subsequently dominated the 1932 Summer Olympics. Armbruster also researched a problem of breaststroke where the swimmer was slowed down significantly while bringing the arms forward underwater. In 1934 Armbruster refined a method to bring the arms forward over water in breaststroke. While this "butterfly" technique was difficult, it brought a great improvement in speed. One year later, in 1935, Jack Sieg (Seig?), a swimmer also from the University of Iowa developed a technique involving swimming on his side and beating his legs in unison similar to a fish tail, and modified the technique afterward to swim it face down. Armbruster and Sieg combined these techniques into a variant of the breaststroke called butterfly with the two kicks per cycle being called dolphin fishtail kick. Using this technique Sieg swam 100 yards in 1:00.2. However, even though this technique was much faster than regular breaststroke, the dolphin fishtail kick violated the rules and was not allowed. Therefore, the butterfly arms with a breaststroke kick were used by a few swimmers in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin for the breaststroke competitions. In 1938, almost every breaststroke swimmer was using this butterfly style, yet this stroke was considered a variant of the breaststroke until 1952, when it was accepted as a separate style with a set of rules.

Around that time another modification to the backstroke became popular. Previously, the arms were held straight during the underwater push phase, for example by the top backstroke swimmer from 1935 to 1945, Adolph Kiefer. However, Australian swimmers developed a technique where the arms are bent under water, increasing the horizontal push and the resulting speed and reducing the wasted force upward and sideways. This style is now generally used worldwide. In 1935 topless swimsuits for men were worn for the first time during an official competition.

In 1943 the US ordered the reduction of fabric in swimsuits by 10% due to wartime shortages, resulting in the first two piece swimsuits. Shortly thereafter the Bikini was invented in Paris by Louis Reard (officially) or Jacques Heim (earlier, but slightly larger).

Another modification was developed for breaststroke. In breaststroke, breaking the water surface increases the friction, reducing the speed of the swimmer. Therefore, swimming underwater increases the speed. This led to a controversy at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, and six swimmers were disqualified, as they repeatedly swam long distances underwater. However, one Japanese swimmer, Masaru Furukawa, circumvented the rule by not surfacing at all after the start, but swimming as much of the lane under water as possible before breaking the surface. He swam all but 5m under water for the first three 50m laps, and also swam half under water for the last lap, winning the gold medal. The adoption of this technique led to many swimmers suffering from oxygen starvation or even some swimmers passing out during the race due to a lack of air, and a new rule was introduced by the FINA, limiting the distance that can be swum under water after the start and every turn, and requiring the head to break the surface every cycle. The 1956 games in Melbourne also saw the introduction of the body roll, a sort of tumble turn to faster change directions at the end of the lane.

In 1972, another famous swimmer, Mark Spitz, was at the height of his career. During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, he won seven gold medals, more than any other Olympic athlete has ever won. Shortly thereafter in 1973, the first swimming world cup was held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia by the FINA.

Breaking the water surface reduces the speed in swimming; this is true not only for breaststroke, but also for backstroke. The swimmers Daichi Suzuki (Japan) and David Berkoff (America) used this for the 100m backstroke at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Berkoff swam 33m of the first lane completely underwater using only a dolphin kick, surfacing just before the turn, far ahead of his competition. A sports commentator called this a Berkoff Blastoff. Suzuki, having practiced the underwater technique for 10 years, surfaced only a little bit earlier, winning the race in 0:55.05. The rules were quickly changed in the same year by the FINA to ensure the health and safety of the swimmers, limiting the underwater phase after the start to ten meters, which was expanded to 15m in 1991. In Seoul, Kristin Otto from East Germany won six gold medals, the most ever won by a woman.

Another innovation is the use of forward tumble turns for backstroke. According to the rules, a backstroke swimmer had to touch the wall while lying less than 90 degrees out of the horizontal. Some swimmers discovered that they could turn faster if they rolled almost 90 degrees sideways, touched the wall, and made a forward tumble turn, pushing off the wall on their backs. The FINA has changed the rules to allow the swimmers to turn over completely before touching the wall to simplify this turn and to improve the speed of the races.

In 1998 Benoît Lecomte swam across the Atlantic Ocean, a total of 5,600 kilometers in 72 days, swimming 6 to 8 hours daily. He was accompanied by two sailors on a sailboat.

After underwater swimming for breaststroke and backstroke, the underwater swimming technique is now also used for butterfly, for example by Denis Pankratov (Russia) or Angela Kennedy (Australia), swimming large distances underwater with a dolphin kick. FINA is again considering a rule change for safety reasons. It is currently unclear if it is possible to swim faster underwater than swimming freestyle or front crawl at the surface.  


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