Health & Fitness

What is the History of Swimming?

Human beings have been swimming for millennia.

Here are some proof points for you:

Wikipedia: Stone Age cave drawings depict individuals swimming. There are also written references in the Bible and the Greek poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” dating back 1,500 to 2,000 years. There are even Egyptian clay seals from 4000 BC showing four swimmers doing a version of the crawl. But the most famous swimming drawings were apparently found in the Kebir desert and were estimated to also be from around 4000 BC.

Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports: Literature related specifically to swimming grew in the middle ages and it is believed that the first book devoted to swimming was Colymbetes by Nicolas Wynman (written in 1538) and a more widely recognized text, De Arte Nantandi, was published in Latin by Everard Digby in 1587. According to the encyclopedia, swimming was required of knights and the Romans built bathhouses and pools in any area that they conquered to serve as social clubs and places to exercise.

Civic and news records show that organized swimming began in the 1800s and 1900s with the creation of swimming associations, i.e., the Amateur Swimming Association in 1886, and clubs that competed against each other. During that era there are reports of swimming clubs in England, France, Germany, and the United States. High-profile events also contributed to swimming’s visibility, i.e., Matthew Webb swimming the English Channel in 1875.

Competitive swimming continued to grow in popularity during the 1800s:

  • 1896: Swimming included in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens
  • 1904: Olympics in St. Louis included the 50-, 100-, 220-, 440-, 880-yard and one-mile freestyle, the 100-yard backstroke and 440-yard breaststroke, and a 4×50-yard freestyle relay

By the 20th century, swimming had become mainstream. Indoor pools were beginning to appear, most towns with populations over 20,000 had public outdoor pools, and swimming clubs became increasingly popular for recreation and is illustrated by these milestones in 1912:

  • Women participated for the first time in swimming in the Olympic Games in Stockholm
  • Johnny Weissmuller (considered by many authorities to be the greatest swimmer of all time and who later went on to Tarzan fame in movies) became the first person to swim 100 meters in less than one minute

Today swimming is one of the most popular Olympic sports and is the second most popular exercise activity in the United States, with approximately 360 million annual visits to recreational water venues. Swim clubs, recreation centers, Y’s, and many other facilities feature swimming pools. Many high schools and colleges have competitive swim teams and countries, national teams that compete in the Olympics.


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