Swimming is an ancient activity that has taken place since both water and humans were on the earth. The history of swimming is a long one, precisely it can be traced back to the prehistoric times. The Bible, as well as the Iliad and the Odyssey all, contain references to the sport of swimming. However, these sources date back nearly 3,000 years. Egyptian clay seals from 4000 B.C. also depict four swimmers doing the crawl stroke. Ancient Egyptian, Grecian and Roman palaces were often equipped with swimming pools or baths. Even drawings discovered in the Kebir desert are linked to this time period and show people moving through water. According to the historians, swimming was also often used in the battle. The Greeks were often regarded as solid swimmers.
This and many more such facts give this sport an incredibly rich history and evolution chart. Before we head into the technicalities of becoming a swimmer, let’s take some time to know and really appreciate the journey this sport has taken to become what it is today.
Below is a series of chronological events that have been recorded by us to give us an idea of how swimming evolved right up till the first Olympic Games of the Modern era:
- 10,000-year-old rock paintings of people swimming were found in the “Cave of Swimmers” near Wadi Sura in southwestern Egypt. These pictures seem to show breaststroke or doggy paddle, although it is also possible that the movements have a ritual meaning unrelated to swimming.
- An Egyptian clay seal dated between 9000 BC and 4000 BC shows four people who are believed to be swimming a variant of the front crawl.
- 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 BC.
- The Greeks did not include swimming in the ancient Olympic Games but practised 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 Indian palace Mohenjo Daro from 2800 BC contains a swimming pool sized 12 m by 7 m.
- An Egyptian tomb from 2000 BC shows a variant of front crawl. Written references date back to ancient times, with the earliest as early as 2000 BC. Such references occur in works like 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.
- A series of reliefs from 850 BC in the Nimrud Gallery of the British Museum shows swimmers, mostly in military context, often using swimming aids.
- The Etruscans at Tarquinia (Italy) show pictures of swimmers in 600 B.C., and tombs in Greece depict swimmers in 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.
- 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.
- Since swimming was done in a state of undress, it became less popular as society became more conservative in the pre-Modern period, 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 1539, Nikolaus Wynmann, a German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book Colymbetes. His purpose was to reduce the dangers of drowning. The book contained a good methodical approach to learning breaststroke and mentioned swimming aids such as air-filled cow bladders, reed bundles, and cork belts.
- In 1587, Everard Digby also wrote a swimming book, claiming that humans could swim better than fish. Digby was a Senior Fellow at St. John’s College, Cambridge and was interested in the scientific method. His short treatise, De Arte natandi, was written in Latin and contained over 40 woodcut illustrations depicting various methods of swimming, including the breaststroke, backstroke and crawl. Digby regarded the breaststroke as the most useful form of swimming.
- In 1595, Christopher Middleton wrote “A short introduction to learne to swimme”, that was the first published guide recording drawings and examples of different swimming styles.
- In 1603, Emperor Go-Yozei of Japan declared that schoolchildren should swim.
- In 1696, the French author Melchisédech Thévenot 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.
- Benjamin Franklin is credited with the invention of the swimming fins at the age of ten, in 1716.
- More lifesaving groups were established in 1767-68 in Amsterdam by the Dutch, 1772 in Copenhagen, and in 1774 by Great Britain
- In 1793, GutsMuths from Schnepfenthal, Germany, wrote Gymnastik für die Jugend (Exercise for 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, GutsMuths 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 learning to swim that is still used today. First, get the student used to the water; second, practice the swimming movements out of the water; and third, practice the swimming movements in the water. He believed that swimming is an essential part of every education.
- 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
- Competitive swimming in Europe started around 1800, mostly using breaststroke.
- In 1804 the lifebelt was invented by W. H. Mallison, 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 underwater, 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 Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, a male-only competition. 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.
Stunning, isn’t it? The journey this activity has taken only up till the Modern Era. Let’s look at its journey in the Modern era next to see how the evolution curve only gets steeper with every decade.