May 8, 2012

A Water World

          My second home is in the water.  Last week it struck me that there has been some terrific changes in swimming strokes just since I started swimming in the 1940’s.  Every morning when I make my way to the local Y, I see these changes all around me. 

          Various swimming styles have been around for a long time.  “Bas-relief artwork in an Egyptian tomb from around 2,000 B.C. shows an over-arm stroke like the front crawl. The Assyrians showed an early breaststroke in their stone carvings. The Hittites, the Minoans, and other early civilizations left drawings of swimming and diving skills,” an article in the Washington Post tells us.  The breast stroke was described in the 1600’s, and the Japanese held the first swimming competition in 36BC, they continue.  I see these changes all around me as I workout in the pool first thing in the mornings.

          My mother taught me how to do the sidestroke just as she learned it in the early 1900’s.  One arm was pulled toward you under the water then shot out ahead as you glided.  To reduce resistance and gain power, the top arm pushed strongly to the legs then recovered out of the water as if it learned to move in Australia.  It was an easy, graceful stroke, and when you held the long gentle glide, it was an elegant stroke.       

          That’s not how it’s done today.  As primary stroke used in rescue swimming, the sidestroke of the 21st century is rapid and concise.  With a drowning victim tucked under your upper arm, all the movements are made under the water.  No long lazy glides, today the arms come together under the water as the legs slam together in the classic scissors kick.  It’s a fast, powerful stroke that that will put you and a rescued person on a boat or at the shore in short order.  Once just a means of Edwardian locomotion, today it’s a tool that saves lives.
          The breaststroke was the first formalized swimming motion.  Swimmers found the sidestroke more easily adaptable to change.  Our current major swimming technique is an outgrowth of the sidestroke.  English swimmer John Trudgen had searched for a stronger stroke.  In 1902, as he altered the arm motions, he continued moving the legs in a scissors kick.  Trudgen thought to turn the trunk flat on the water with the arms moving in rotation.  He was the first swimmer to officially invent a version of the front crawl.  It was awkward.  Two arm strokes to each scissors kick.  I would have great difficulty with the midway twist of the body and the coordination to make this stroke work perhaps resembling a drowning elephant.
          The New York Times tells us that, “The inefficiency of the Trudgen kick led Australian Richard Cavill to try new methods. He used a stroke he observed natives of the Solomon Islands using, which combined an up-and-down kick with an alternating overarm stroke. He used the new stroke in 1902 at the International Championships and set a new world record (100 yards in 58.4 seconds). This stroke became known as the Australian crawl.”  Today a version of this same stroke is called Freestyle.  Freestyle techniques are constantly being modified.  No more chopping at the water, something I am an expert at, now we all reach as far forward as we can.  The forearm surface is what pulls the body forward they’ve by discovered watching videos of the best swimmers.  Body position and head position make it all work.  But we knew that.
          Did anyone say anything about keeping water out of my nose and ears? 
          Another example of swimming change comes in the form of the lane turns.  If you do laps or any sort of training in a pool, you need to turn around when you get to the end of your lane.  To keep things continuous, the “Open Turn” was standardized for competition.  Swim to the side of the pool, touch it with your hand while bringing your legs up to push yourself strongly off the wall.  You glide at a good speed underwater then resume your stroke.  I learned this in the 1940’s.  It would have been simple if I could have seen the wall.  Again and again I would swim right into the side of the pool.  In agony I would then have to listen to the instructor to say one more time, “Oh, we all do that when we are first beginning.”  If I could find her now, I would tell her that I was still swimming right into sides of pools. 
          Today’s swimmers use the “Flip Turn.”  I cannot imagine my overweight body reaching the end of a lap and blindly flipping over in a somersault.   Will my legs break as they hit the lip of the pool?  Will I concuss myself once again on the wall of the pool?  Not only do you not get that extra bit of breathable air using this turn, but flip turns are disorienting.  It’s easy to lose sight of where you are going.
          Trying to keep up with all the latest changes mid-stroke, sometimes leaves me at a disadvantage.    Just as it would be easier to let an programming editor take care of my blogging design, it would also be easier to change my mode of swimming.   Instead, I do my own html and use many of the old strokes.  No html5 or freestyle for me.  The only change I have made in my antique swimming strokes is to add a half hour of water aerobics.  We used to call those calisthenics.  Revolutionary.  Perhaps that will allow me a connection to both worlds.


  1. I was always grateful that I learned the "Australian crawl" and could actually swim with it. Because most other strokes -- even a modified backstroke -- never worked as well. Just me, I guess.

  2. Ah! The sidestroke! Lovely! My fave!

  3. I wish I could swim. I've never really mastered it. I admire those of you who swim on a regular basis.

  4. My youngest granddaughter was a competitive swimmer for a while. She taught me a thing or two. All I could do now is the sidestroke and I would probably drown if I did it. Mostly I walk in the pool. Nice piece. Dianne

  5. I learned to swim when I was 47. It was one of the most difficult things I ever did, learning that is. After several years of 30 laps at a time I moved on to other kinds of exercise. Swimming is not for me.

  6. Learned to swim in a cold adirondack lake at 8:30 every morning of my childhood summers. When you live in a village on a lake you make sure your kids know how to swim. My parents signed us up every summer for the early morning community lessons that produced everything from splashers to life guards to olympians and professional syncronized swimmers. An old photograph shows me and my sibs in soaked suits, guts pulled in from the brutal lakewater cold shivering under a shared towel. After the lessons we went home, warmed up, ate a meal and returned for the warmer afternoon to play on the beach and swim. It was a big deal when you were certified to go beyond the ropes to the dock. Sadly there was at least one drowning every summer. Lessons or not.

    A few years ago I jumped off a boat into a cold Idaho lake - and my life quickly passed before my eyes..I am definitely too old to be that cold. Now I love the gently heated old lady pool.

  7. This brought back many memories of girl scout camp, learning to swim. We learned the sidestroke as "reaching up to pick the apple then put it in the basket" meeting the other hand at the waist. I am not sure I would be able to do it any other way. I haven't gone swimming in a very long time, as I do not wear swimsuits. I kind of miss it.


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Peter in front of a wall sculpture. We were invited up to Peter Knego’s home to see the latest installation.   Abstract flat ...