Although humans have been swimming for thousands of years, swimming only became a competitive sport in the early 1800s. Today, swimming is the third most-watched sport in the Olympic Games.
Crossing the English Channel
In 1875, Matthew Webb ignited public interest in swimming when he became the first person to swim across the English Channel. Swimming only breastroke, it took him more than 21 hours to complete this feat. Thirty-one years would pass before another person would successfully swim across the Channel.
The Debut of Modern Olympic Swimming
In the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, men competed in four swimming events, all contested in the choppy open water of the Mediterranean Sea. Four years later at the 1900 Summer Games in Paris, all the swimming events (which included an obstacle course) were contested in the Seine River.
In the early years of recreational and competitive swimming, breastroke was the only stroke swum. In 1902, Australian Richard Cavill was the first to swim with an up-and-down kick and alternating over-arm recoveries. This stroke, dubbed the “Australian crawl,” was the beginning of modern freestyle. Johnny Weissmuller (who went on greater fame playing Tarzan in the movie of the same name) became the first man to break the one-minute barrier in the 100 Freestyle in 1912.
Women Make Splash Entering Swimming Record Books
For a variety of reasons, women had not been allowed to compete in Olympic swimming (or most other Olympic sports, for that matter) prior to 1912. But that year, women made their Olympic swimming debut, racing in the 100 meter Freestyle and the 4 x 100 meter Freestyle Relay.
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.
Butterfly Emerges as a New Stroke
As the sport of swimming grew, many swimmers and coaches began experimenting with new technique, particularly in an attempt to make breastroke faster. In the 1930s Americans David Armbruster and Jack Sieg came up with the double over-the-water arm recovery and the dolphin kick, respectively, which combined to form butterfly. It was allowed as an alternative form of breastroke until the 1950s, when it was declared a separate stroke. Also in the 1950s, flip turns, or tumbleturns, were first used in Olympic competition.
At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals in one Games, while sporting his famous “drag-reducing” mustache. (Later in life he would admit that the mustache provided no hydrodynamic advantage, and that he had made the claim in an attempt to psych out his Russian competitors.)
The following Olympiad, in 1976, swimmers were finally allowed to wear goggles.
Open Water Swimming Goes Very, Very Cold
Lynne Cox, inspired by Gertrude Ederle and gifted with a unique physiology, swam across the Bering Strait in 1987 without a wetsuit. Her swim was also a feat of international political persuasion, as it took place at a time when Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR were running high. Later, she would be the first person, man or woman, to swim just over a mile in the icy waters of Antarctica.
Backstroke Goes Underwater, Forcing a Rule Change
In 1988, American David Berkoff and other backstroke swimmers demonstrated that they could go much faster by doing underwater butterfly kicks on their back than by swimming on the surface. As a result, Japanese swimmer David Suzuki and Berkoff, the Olympic gold and silver medalists in the 100 Backstroke, went more than thirty-three meters under water at the Summer Games that year. FINA quickly amended the swimming rules to state that backstrokers must surface at or before the ten meter mark. (FINA later revised the rule to fifteen meters.)
The Most Decorated Swimmers of All-time
Also at the 1988 Games in Seoul , Korea, Kristin Otto of East Germany set the current record for the most gold medals won by a woman in a single Olympic Games, with six.
In 2004 Michael Phelps tied Mark Spitz’ record of seven Olympic gold 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.
Just Add Open Water to the Olympics
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.