Open Water Swimming History


The open waters have attracted swimmers for ages. Where there's a lake, river, bay, ocean, channel or canal, there's likely to be someone who's tried to conquer it. This article explores the early history of open water swimming, its development as a sport, a little about the most famous open water tradition of all - the English Channel swim, and where open water swimming is today.

The Beginnings of Open Water Swimming

People are drawn to nature's water for different reasons - whether it's a force to be reckoned with, offers a refreshing dip, or simply soothes. The ancient Greeks and Romans were drawn to natural spring water not only for bathing and exercise, but as a means of treating their ailments. Archaeological evidence shows that healing baths were used in ancient Egypt. The early seventeenth century found the Queen of England and other British royalty enjoying spas and baths to cure their ills and promote their health. Doctors to this day acknowledge the healing powers of ancient salt water.

Aside from the therapeutic benefits of soaking in it, the open waters provide a place to swim and recreate. Water sports spread throughout England in the eighteenth century. Races in the great rivers and seas took place in the late 1700s and well into 1800s. Benjamin Franklin assumed his place in the history of open water swimming when he swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars, performing tricks for spectators along the way! (Lord, Craig; "FINA Centenary Book." Origins open water, Lord Byron is said to have swum across the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) from Europe to Asia in 1810, marking the beginnings of what would be the modern age of open water swimming.

Competitive Open Water Swimming

Some of the earliest evidence from Japan shows that open water swim competitions were held as far back as 2,000 years ago. Today, an ageless passion for water finds expression in the modern Olympic Games. And although competing in the open waters is an ancient pastime, as an athletic event it's said to be "both the youngest and the oldest" of its kind (Lord; 2008). The first three modern Olympics hosted open water swimming events. The open water events staged at the 1896 Summer Games in Athens were held in the Bay of Zea, on the eastern coast of the Piraeus peninsula in Greece and included a 100 meter race, and a swim across the Bay before 20,000 onlookers.

The Olympic swim events at the turn of the century took place on the Seine river in Paris, and included an obstacle course, and a race swum entirely underwater! The open swim competitions at the 1904 Games were held in an artificial lake, and in 1906, the Mediterranean. With the advent of swimming pools for the 1908 Olympics, lap racing would replace open water swim, and open water competitions were put to rest for an entire century.

The event found its way back to the open waters of the 2000 Summer Games, with the inclusion of the triathlon's 1500 meter open water swim. The resurrected attraction took to new heights at the 2008 Beijing Games with the inaugural 10k marathon race becoming an official event.

As a venue that bears no lanes, lines, walls, or starting blocks for points of reference, open water swimmers are challenged in ways that lap swimmers are not. Not to mention the natural elements such as currents, sea life, wind or rain that puts swimmers to a different kind of test.

The English Channel Swim

No tradition has become as synonymous with open water swimming as the English Channel swim. The first to cross the English Channel was Captain Matthew Webb, in August of 1875, kicking off an infectious tradition. After failing to cross it the first time, the Englishman took the challenge again and finished in under 22 hours, swimming the breaststroke in a zigzag pattern against strong currents.

Others caught the open water bug. But it wasn't until well over a century later, in August of 2007, that Bulgarian swimmer, Petar Stoychev was the first to swim the Channel in under seven hours! Alison Streeter earned her title, Queen of the Channel, for having swum it an unbeatable 43 times! The English Channel has been crossed more than 1,000 times. The contagion to conquer the open waters has spread to oceans, lakes and rivers around the world.

Open Water Swimming Today

Today, the FINA World Championships host the 5 km, 10 km, and 25 km open water swim races. This Summer's London Games' open water events will include the men's and women's 10 km marathon.

With increased media publicity, and a best-selling book on open water swimming titled, "Wild Swim" by founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, Kate Rew, the popularity of the sport has taken to new heights in Britain and beyond.

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