Starting from the first Olympic Games in the Modern era which swimming was a part of, let’s look at its journey over the last century and the various influences which have made swimming what it is today:

  • The second Olympic Games in Paris in 1900 featured 200m, 1000m, and 4000m freestyle, 200m backstroke, and a 200m team race. 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 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. 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, an 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.
  • In 1926, Gertrude Ederle, at age 19, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. She beat the contemporary men’s record by two hours, and secured her place in history as the first woman in a major sport to best a men’s record. The next year the Channel Swimming Association was founded. The organization would not only establish rules for “crossing the English channel,” but have tremendous influence over the growth and development of open water swimming as a sport.
  • 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, 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 underwater 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 after 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, while sporting his famous “drag-reducing” moustache. (Later in life he would admit that the moustache provided no hydrodynamic advantage and that he had made the claim in an attempt to psych out his Russian competitors).
  • Shortly thereafter in 1973, the first swimming world cup was held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia by the FINA.
  • The following Olympiad, in 1976, swimmers were finally allowed to wear goggles.
  • 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 practised 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 kms 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.
  • In the early 21st Century, swimming seems headed back to its open water roots. South Africa’s Midmar Mile race attracted over 17,000 entrants in 2004, setting a participation record for open water events. Accomplished pool swimmers began training for and competing in open water events. In 2008, the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the rising popularity of open water swimming and added for the first time a 10km open water marathon to the list of events contested at the Summer Games.
  • In 2004 Michael Phelps tied Mark Spitz’ record of seven Olympic medals in one Games, and eventually beat it in 2008, when he won eight gold. One of those medals came thanks to an astonishing swim by his teammate Jason Lezak, who caught and ultimately out-touched a French swimmer in the 4 x 100 Freestyle Relay.

Now that we’ve gone through a quick flashback of the long road that swimming has taken to become the sport it is today, let’s dive headfirst into the pool waters and become a part of this amazing sport!