Swimming History

Remember how we did the "doggie paddle" after diving into the deep because we hadn't learned the breaststroke yet? Did you know it was the first form of the breaststroke, and that we've doing it since the cave man days?

Swimming's come a long way. People of all ages love to swim. It's only natural; we come from water and we're drawn back to it. Swimming is not only fun, but great exercise. Those recovering from injuries, the aging, and the small all enjoy the gentle challenges and refreshing feel of bathing in cool, clean water.

Water lovers with a taste for competition have made swimming one of the most popular sporting events in history. Today, Olympic Games include more than 30 swimming races and more than 20 aquatic events for both men and women alike, with disabilities. Swimming is the second most popular recreation activity in the United States, and is enjoyed by more than a million Americans.

The United States alone has made sweeping strokes toward achieving team swim history. The US swim team earned more medals in the last two summer Olympic Games than in any other sport. But when and where did the sport of swimming begin?

According to stone-age paintings, humans have braved the waters since the dawn of man. The Cave of Swimmers, found in southwest Egypt, shows people doing something like the breaststroke, which began as, yes you named it, the doggie paddle. A 4,000-9,000 year-old Egyptian clay seal reveals humans taking to water in ancient times. On the seal, four swimmers appear to be doing the front crawl. Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian reliefs bear proof of man's age old love of diving into the deep blue sea. Most famous among them are drawings found in the Kebir desert dated to around 4,000 BC. Various depictions of swimmers have been unearthed among the Minoans, the Hittites, in Pompeii, and other Middle Eastern civilizations.

As for written records of swimming, they stretch back about 2000 years. Such classics as the Iliad, the Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey all speak of humans swimming long ago.

We swam to bathe, for pure enjoyment, and maybe even for sport. Reliefs dated 850 BC contained in the Nimrud Gallery of the British Museum as well as German folklore even suggest that swimming may have been used for military reasons. In fact there was a time when swimming was considered "one of the seven agilities of knights during the middle ages, including swimming with armour."

The middle ages produced a lot of literature on the art of swimming. But not so much as a sport as to prevent drowning. Nikolaus Wynmann, a German professor of languages, wrote the first book on swimming in 1539, calling it Colymbetes (a kind of diving beetle). And in 1578 he wrote: Der Schwimmer oder ein Zwiegesprach uber die Schwimmkunst, "The Swimmer or a Dialogue on the Art of Swimming."

Sixteenth century British author Everard Digby was so passionate about it that he said people can even learn to swim better than fish! The breaststroke was still the most common form of swimming.

The growing concern for water safety and education spawned some of the first swimming organizations. In 1603, Japan's emperor declared that swimming should be a part of every child's curriculum.

In the 1700s, lifesaving groups spread throughout Britain, Germany, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, as did swimming clubs throughout Sweden and Germany.

Though swimming is ancient, the sport is fairly young. Competitive swimming began in early nineteenth century Europe with of course, the breaststroke. Other styles and variations were developed later, including something called the "Trudgen", a method inspired by the front crawl developed by the Native Americans. John Arthur Trudgen reworked it a little, gave it a new kick, and introduced it to the West in 1873. Thus its name.

The nineteenth century saw new technique innovations, and more swim competitions, as the art of swimming gained popularity. It was a time of refining skills, and putting them to the challenge. An 1844 competition drew a gaggle of Native American swimmers using the same front crawl used by pacific islanders and West Africans for generations. British gentlemen were bothered by all the splashing caused by the more primitive swim styles, so only the breaststroke was swam until 1873.

In 1862 swim races were no longer held strictly outdoors, England built its first indoor swimming pool. An amateur swim association was organized in 1880, attracting more than 300 swimmers. And by now a new sidestroke was introduced, and modified over time to improve speed.

The final years of the nineteenth century inaugurated the first Olympic Games held in Athens, in April, 1896. The games welcomed six swim events; only four took place. First to win the gold was Alfred Hajos of Hungary, winning the 100 meter, and 1200 meter freestyle races. Swimmers braved the chilly open waters of the Bay of Zea off the Piraeus Coast, because organizers chose not to spend funds on building a swim stadium.

The second Olympic Games held in Paris in 1900, added new swim events, including an obstacle course in the Seine River, and an underwater swim race! More swim heroes rose to the top, including freestyler John Arthur Jarvis in the 4000-meter in less than one hour; the longest swim race ever. New to the games were the backstroke, and water polo. Inspired by a young swimmer from the Solomon Island, Native Australian legend Richmond Cavill fine-tuned the Trudgen stroke, and he and a team of brothers brought the "Australian crawl" to New Zealand, England, and America. This was the hay-day for Australian swimmers.

The new century saw also more water events, sleeker moves and innovations, and the founding of the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), the world swimming organization, in 1907.

That year, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, graced the waters with a new event, water ballet, known later as synchronized swimming. It created quite a stir among the old-schooled. After performing the first water ballet in a glass tank in New York, Kellerman was arrested for indecent exposure for showing her legs, arms, and neck. The times led to a change in attitude and by 1924, North America was embracing synchronized swimming, its first competition held in Montreal.

It was then, that just about everyone was learning to swim. Drowning was fairly common prior to the twentieth century, so organized swimming and various lifesaving organizations were created to raise awareness, and a practical desire to learn to swim.

The 1920s birthed more swim legends. Namely Johnny Weismuller, the first to break a minute in the 100 meter Australian crawl, launching the "golden age of swimming". Weismuller earned five Olympic medals and won 36 US championships before becoming well known as Tarzan on the big screen. Meanwhile, more lady swimmers arose to fame, such as Sybil Bauer, the first woman to break a male world record in the 440 meter backstroke.

Developments brought yet newer variations on the breaststroke, one of them the "Butterfly" in the 1930s, but it wasn't until 1952 that it became a style its own because its original defining kick, the "dolphin fishtail kick", violated rules and was banned. The new "flip-turn" created by a Texas swim coach came to be used in 1936.

The world swim community demanded new scientific technologies to improve their techniques, and their times. And it got just that. In 1928 a coach from the University of Iowa, David Armbruster, began to film swimmers underwater. Japan caught on, and as a result dominated the 1932 summer Olympics.

It was a time of creating new aerodynamic moves, and fine-tuning old ones.

Swimmers were going to any lengths to reach the gold, literally. There was a time when remaining underwater as long as possible was the ticket. One swimmer won a gold medal by remaining underwater almost the entire race! Ah ha! But swimmers were staying under so long they were passing out. New rules had to be written limiting their time underwater in between cycles.

In team swim history, the 1970s are wedded with legendary hero Mark Spitz who earned seven gold medals in the Munich, Germany, Olympic Games.

The following years brought a number of swim legends to the fore, namely Daichi Suzuki of Japan in the 100 meter backstroke in the 1988 Olympics, and David Berkoff of the United States swimming the 33 meter swimming entirely underwater using only the dolphin kick, earning Berkoff the nickname, "Blastoff". Women such as Kristin Otto of East Germany earning a female record six gold medals were making their mark.

Making his debut in the 2000 summer Olympic Games was of course Michael Phelps, the youngest competitor at the age of 15.

Diving into the summer games of 2004, Phelps earned 6 gold medals and 2 bronze medals, tying with a soviet for a combined number of medals earned in a single Olympics Games. It's said that Phelps didn't learn to swim until the age of seven, and even then he only swam the backstroke because, "I was afraid to put my head underwater". It served him well.

Keeping his head above the rest, Phelps swam his way to the top of the world swim community during the 2008 summer events by earning his fourteenth gold medal. Sixteen medals earned in his lifetime breaks the record for the number of medals earned by any male athlete in Olympic history.

To think it all began with the doggie paddle.

So what does the future of swimming hold? Most likely more innovations, better technology, better techniques, and more heroes. Swimming's always been a great way to exercise, at any age. And since humans have taken to the water since the cave man days, you can be sure that as long as there's water, there will be swimmers.

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