Swimming and Its Evolution as a Sport

Swimming involves propulsion of the body through water by the co-ordinated movement of limbs and bodily movements in humans. In aquatic animals, the movement is aided by fins and tails. As an evolutionary response, within few weeks of birth, humans can hold upon their breath while under water and also can start the basic movements of swimming. Earlier, swimming was usually meant for recreation, survival and for discovery, but later it evolved to be an exercise and a sport.

Swimming in Ancient Times

  • In Wadi Sura in south-western Egypt, there are records of 10,000-year-old rock paintings, revealing people swimming using breaststroke or doggy paddle. It seemed to have a ritual significance, not related to swimming.
  • An Egyptian clay seal dated between 9000 BCE and 4000 BCE reveals four people swimming displaying a variant of front crawl.
  • The Babylonian bas- reliefs and Assyrian wall drawings, depicts a type of breaststroke swimming, the Kebir desert (4000 BCE), and the Nagoda bas-relief (3000 BCE), also reveals swimming during that period.
  • The Indian palace Mohenjo Daro (2800 BCE) even had a swimming pool of 30m X 60m. The Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete also had baths.
  • An Egyptian tomb (2000 BCE) revealed a type of front crawl. The Hittites, Minoans, and other Middle Eastern civilizations, in the Tepantitla compound at Teotihuacan, and in mosaics in Pompeii also depicted swimming.
    Even the Bible describes movement through the water-in Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42, and Isaiah 25:11

Modern Era- An Era of Swimming Books

  • Leonardo da Vinci made sketches of lifebelts in the early Modern period.
  • In 1539, Nikolaus Wynmann, a German professor, wrote on minimizing the dangers of swimming in the first swimming book Colymbetes, which provided a good practical approach to learn breaststroke.
  • In 1587, Everard Digby in his book, De arte natandi, written in Latin depicted several techniques of swimming, including the breaststroke, backstroke and crawl.
  • In 1696, the French author Melchisédech Thévenot wrote The Art of Swimming, depicting a breaststroke similar to the modern breaststroke.
  • In 1739, Guts Muts from Schnepfenthal, Germany, wrote Gymnastik für die Jugend (Exercise for youth), also discussed swimming.
  • In 1794, Kanonikus Oronzio de Bernardi of Italy wrote a two volume book, emphasizing floating as a prerequisite for swimming.
  • In 1798, Guts Muts in his book Kleines Lehrbuch der Schwimmkunst zum Selbstunterricht, described a three-step approach of swimming, which is considered today also. 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.

Evolution of Competitive Swimming
Competitive swimming in Britain started around 1830, mostly using breaststroke. Swimming was included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. In 1908, the world swimming association, Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), was formed.

  • By 1837, the National Swimming Society of London commenced competitive swimming using the breaststroke and the recently developed sidestrokes.
  • In 1844, a swimming meet for natives of America was organised at London. Flying Gull set up a record of swimming 130 feet in 30 seconds and defeated Tobacco. In this stroke motion of arms thrashed the water similar to windmill and kicked in an up-and-down motion. This was the early form of the front crawl.
  • In 1875, Captain Matthew Webb was the first to swim, the 21.26 miles of the English Channel, manoeuvring breaststroke in 21 hours and 45 minutes. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the channel. Marcus Hooper (age-twelve years in 1979) was the youngest person and Ashby Harper (age-66 years in 1983) was the oldest to swim the channel. This challenge keeps on attracting long distance swimmers as the final triumph in swimming.

Evolution of Different Types of Strokes

1. Overarm Stroke:

  • A series of swimming strokes evolved during 1800s.
  • The overarm sidestroke evolved from the sidestroke, in which the swimmer lies on one side.
  • One arm was recovered above the water for increased arm speed and the legs were squeezed together in an uncoordinated action.
  • In 1895, J. H. Thayers of England, using the overarm sidestroke, set up a record 1:02.50 for 100 yards.

2. Trudgen Stroke:

  • John Trudgen was the inventor of the trudgen stroke, the hand-over-hand stroke, which he copied from South American Indians and introduced it in England in 1873.
  • Each arm comes out of the water as the body rolled from side to side.
  • The swimmer performed a scissors kick with every two arm strokes.
  • This stroke was the forerunner of the front crawl.
  • Kicks included different multiples of scissors kicks or alternating scissors and flutter kicks.
  • In 1901, F. V. C. Lane swam 100 yards in 1:00.0., using trudgen.

3. Front Crawl:

  • Australian Richard Cavill observed the natives of the Solomon Islands, which combined an up-and-down kick with an alternating overarm stroke.
  • Using this new stroke in 1902 at the International Championships, he set up a new world record (100 yards in 58.4 seconds).


  • Research in Swimming paved the way for evolution of breaststroke.
  • Until the l950s, the breaststroke, being faster than earlier strokes was the only stroke with a required style.

5. Butterfly:

  • In 1934, David Armbruster, coach at the University of Iowa, employed a double overarm recovery out of the water.
  • This butterfly arm action revealed greater speed but required proper training and conditioning

6. Dolphin Fishtail Kick:

  • In 1935, Jack Sieg, a University of Iowa swimmer, swam on his side and beat his legs in unison like a fish's tail.
  • Armbruster and Sieg combined the butterfly arm action with this leg action and to coordinate the two efficiently.
  • This kick came to be known as the dolphin fishtail kick. But, it was discarded.
  • In 1953, the butterfly stroke with the dolphin kick was again legalized.

7. Backstroke:

  • With its advent in 1900 Olympic Games, this swimming stroke starts with a push off the wall of the pool instead of a dive.
  • Adolph Kiefer, backstroke swimmer from 1935 to 1945, got his thrust by pulling with his arms held straight in the water.
  • But according to modern Australian backstrokers, they could get more horizontal thrust by slightly bending the arm as it came around underwater.

8. New world records were set-up with streamlined dolphin kick underwater until 1989 when FINA, swimming's governing body, restricted underwater dolphin kicking on the backstroke to 15 meters.

0 Comment