SWIMNEWS ONLINE: May 1998 Magazine Articles

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A Century Of Change


Cecil M. Colwin

With the century soon to end, almost every human activity, including swimming, will come under close scrutiny.

The mass media will be spoilt for choice by the wide range of topics just begging to be discussed. What sorts of reviews can swimming anticipate?

It's certain that the main theme will centre on where we have been, and where we are going. The first questions are likely to be: Who gets the vote as the Swimmer of the Century? Who were the great Swimmers of the Century?-the East Germans or the Chinese? (Just my little joke.) You can start drafting your own short list now-I'm working on mine.

The sport of swimming has changed and grown dramatically in the last one hundred years, mainly due to the vast improvement in stroke techniques and training methods, the constant lowering of psychological barriers, the increase in participation, the improvement in facilities, and the benefits of scientific research.

The evolution of the swimsuit also contributed to swimming progress. The emanicipation of the aquatic woman was wrought by the traumas of public indignation and near-drowning experiences while copiously clad in one-piece tights, complete with stockings and covering cape, once dubbed "water overcoats" by pioneer swimmer Annette Kellerman. Today, women wear sleek hydrodynamic swimsuits designed to divert turbulent flow and quell resistance. The male swimmer has likewise progressed from the heavy woolen full-length swim suits, complete with shoulder straps and the frontal skirts to preserve modesty, once prescribed by law.

Neither should we forget the great contribution to speed swimming made by a small and comparatively simple device, namely the humble swimming goggle, which eliminated eye irritation, thus enabling swimmers to dramatically increase the amount of time spent in training.

A Few Important Benchmarks

The century started with world interest focussed on the Australian swimmers Dick Cavill, Freddy Lane, and Cecil Healy, who took turns at lowering the world 100 yards record with their newly developed Australian crawl stroke. Between them, they brought the world 100 yards record down from 60.2 seconds to 58.0 seconds. The new stroke was unique because it provided continuous movement, something previously unheard of, instead of the stop-start action of the English overarm sidestroke and the trudgen.

In America at the New York Athletic Club, three men-coaches Otto Wahle and L. de B. Handley, together with swimmer Charles Daniels-studied newspaper reports of the new Australian stroke. From these accounts, Daniels tried to copy the new stroke in the Club's freshwater pool, and inadvertently performed the stroke with a faster kick than the Australian two-beat, which had been developed in the buoyancy of sea-water pools around Sydney Harbour. Within a year, Daniels broke Healy's record by recording 57.4 seconds. By the end of an illustrious career as America's first great swimmer, Daniels had nailed the record down at 54.8 seconds.

During the first ten years of the century, both in Australia and in America, experimentation with the crawl continued. Some said that the crawl was too strenuous for any distance over 100 yards. But soon, young kids learned crawl as their first stroke, and swam it with consummate ease at all distances.

L. de B. Handley, coach at the New York Women's Swimming Association, found that women took to the crawl more naturally than men because they floated more easily and could kick faster. On August 6, 1926, his 19-year-old protˇgˇ, Gertrude Ederle, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Swimming an eight-beat crawl, she covered the 35 miles in 14 hours 31 minutes to break the men's record by 59 minutes. Born on October 23, 1906, in New York City, Gertrude Ederle is still alive, a tribute to the sport's health-giving effects.

Johnny Weissmuller was voted the greatest swimmer of the first half of the century. He started breaking records in 1922 and continued with the greatest record onslaught by any known swimmer. In 1923 he succeeded in breaking "Duke" Kahanamoku's 100 yard record, which had stood for many years. He held more than 50 world records at all distances up to and including the 880 yard swim.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s, young girls were breaking Johnny's world records over the longer distances. Today, the women's world record list, even when excluding the East Germans and Chinese, whose times, for some strange reason, have not been expunged from the record books, show the continuous advance of women's swimming with most times on a par with the men's records of less than 30 years ago.

Land Training

An important development came at Yale University in 1917 with the introduction by Bob Kiphuth of specific land training exercises for swimming. Kiphuth found that swimmers could condition themselves in half the time that it took to do so in the water. These supplementary land training routines, consisting of free exercises, medicine ball, and pulley weight work, became an important part of swimming preparation worldwide.

Hard Training

In the 1930s, Japan, encouraged by the success of their breaststroke swimmer, Yoshiyuki Tsuruta, the first Japanese swimmer to win an Olympic title in 1928 and again in 1932, organized the world's first national training plan. With superior financial backing and country-wide interest, they were said to practise four times as hard as the Americans. They filmed Johnny Weissmuller in great detail, then conducted tests on Japanese swimmers to find a stroke more naturally suited to their physiques.

The Japanese men were a complete surprise at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, where they won 12 medals (5 gold, 5 silver, 2 bronze) in the six men's events. They placed first and second in every men's race but one, and in that race placed third, fourth, and fifth. The Japanese also won one silver in the six women's event. Again, in 1936 in Berlin, the Japanese won 11 medals (4 gold, 2 silver and 5 bronze). They showed the world the value of hard work, and that swimming success did not depend only on good stroke technique.

Age Group Swiming

The early 1950s saw the advent of organized age group swimming in America, a developmental movement started by Carl Bauer at the Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis and developed by Beth Kaufman in California. The program caused a great upsurge in swimming, particularly in California, and the concept soon spread worldwide, encouraging thousands of children to take up competitive swimming.

The advent of formal age group swimming was one of the most important developments in 20th century swimming. In this age of performance-enhancing drugs, the careful nurturing of age group swimmers in the ideals of honest endeavour and clean sportsmanship remains perhaps the sport's best hope for the future.

American College Scholarships

After the first post-war Olympic Games in London, 1948, swimming knowledge gradually spread worldwide as a result of improved worldwide communication, increased television coverage of major meets, and regular technical exchanges by visiting coaches. In addition, foreign swimmers, who had attended American universities on athletic scholarships, returned home with valuable experience and information gained while training under some of the world's foremost coaches. In the 1960s the advent of regular jet travel led to more international competition.

The Australian Revival

In 1956, the Olympic Games were held in Australia for the first time. Before large home crowds, Australian swimmers gained the major honours, winning 8 gold medals out of 14 events (7 men's and 7 women's) after training hard for several months in the tropical climate of Townsville on the North Queenland coast.

Their preparation was based on interval training as used by track athletes. Not only were they the first swimmers to shave down, but they were the first to use the pre-competition taper and to emphasize the importance of adequate warm-up and even pacing.

After their early experiments at the turn of the century, the Australians once more found new ways to improve freestyle technique. They sought to eliminate the tiring effects of "over-kicking," particularly at middle and long distances, and to emphasise the arm action as the major power source. The shoulders were not held flat, as was commonplace in America at that time, but were allowed to rotate with the rhythm of the arm action. At the end of the pull, the shoulder moved backward with the arm, bringing the powerful large trunk muscles into action. The action of the legs was subdued but could be speeded up quite noticeably when sprinting.

Muscular Strength and Power

Another big development was the increasing emphasis on developing muscular strength and power while not neglecting the important aspect of flexibility. In addition to barbell training, which coaches started using around the 1960s, a wide range of specially designed resistance-exercise machines and other equipment gradually found their place in the land training programs of swimmers worldwide.

Improved Swimming Pools

Concurrent with these developments was the great improvement in swimming pools, including many Olympic-type stadia around the world specially designed for competitive swimming. These pools are in stark contrast to the sea-water enclosures in Sydney Harbour where the first experiments with the crawl around the turn of the century marked the start of 100 years of progress.

The great early-century swimmers from the North of England trained in the traditional public bath houses, which contained, in addition to a small poorly lit swimming pool, laundry and bathing facilities for people with no bathrooms and no hot water systems in their homes.

The Drug Spectre

By the end of the third quarter of the century, it was clear that not all improvement had been the result of honest effort. The East German swimmers were under suspicion for twenty years, but never caught. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Stasi (secret police) Files were opened, was it confirmed that they had all been using anabolic steroids.

Once mistakenly regarded as the most powerful nation in world sport, the GDR had also taken the lead over the former Soviet Union in training sports leaders from the Third World, and in doing so, had spread their virus far and wide, as we now know so well.

The GDR's Olympic "successes" were spearheaded by their doped women athletes. In 1972 the GDR won a total of 9 medals, including 2 golds from Rolland Matthes. In 1976, with state-supported drug use, the women won 18 medals (12 gold, 5 silver and 1 bronze by the women; 1 bronze by the men). Their domination continued until 1988. Their many world records are still in the lists, and they still have their medals.

One thing now stands out stark and undeniable: The sport of swimming can either end the century with a feeling of hope or, in the light of the drug problem that besets the sport, end it with what is tantamount to a message of despair and failure.

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