The History & Evolution of Swimming

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  • 0:02 Ancient Swimming
  • 0:40 Competition in Swimming
  • 2:20 The Evolution of Strokes
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has an Masters of Science in Mathematics and a Masters in Education

Did you know that native cultures have used a swimming stroke similar to freestyle since ancient times, but it wasn't used in modern swim competitions until the late 19th century? This lesson explains this and other milestones of competitive swimming.

Ancient Swimming

Some of us may think of swimming as something we do during the summer to play the days away. Did you know there are lots of examples of swimming in ancient contexts going back to nearly prehistoric times? These include a Japanese emperor's decree encouraging the sport 2,000 years ago and pictures depicting swimmers in 4,500-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics, 7,000-year-old clay tablets, and 9,000-year-old cave paintings. Clearly there is a long history of people swimming for travel, to gather food, and exercise, not just lazing the day away.

Competition in Swimming

Competitive swimming can be a fun sport to watch. The first known swimming competitions were held in Japan in 36 BC. Curiously, modern swimming competitions didn't start until the 1830s, after the first indoor pools had been built.

Swimming has been a part of the Olympics since 1896, the very first games of the modern era. However, swimming at that time looked very different than it does today. Only males were allowed to compete, the events were held in ocean water, and the swimmers didn't even get their faces wet. Their bathing suits were made of wool and completely covered from knee and elbow. Does that sound comfortable to you?

The Australian crawl, now called the freestyle stroke, was first used in 1902. The 1912 Olympic Games were the first to include both men's and women's events and hold the competition in an actual pool. The year 1924 saw the first standard Olympic-sized pool, and diving blocks were introduced in 1936.

Some of the most notable male Olympic swimmers are Johnny Weismuller, Mark Spitz, and Michael Phelps. Weismuller was unbeaten in any swim competition in his 10-year career, won five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, and is better known as the actor that played Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s. Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972 competition, a feat not surpassed until Phelps captured eight in 2008 at Beijing. Phelps also holds records for the number of Olympic medals won (28), the number of gold medals won (23), and the number of gold medals in individual events (13).

The Evolution of Strokes

Competitive swimming didn't start out having the standard strokes we see in the pool today. Let's take a look at how swimming strokes came to be.

The Breaststroke

The first swimming competition held in 1830s London had a version of the breaststroke where the face did not go in the water. Breaststroke continued to be the dominant competitive stroke until at least 1873, when freestyle became more widely accepted. Later versions of the stroke included swimming mostly underwater for a competitive advantage. This style was later banned because competitors were passing out from lack of oxygen. To avoid this, the rules were changed in the 1950s to require swimmers come up for air once every cycle of kick/pull.

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