People have been swimming since the dawn of man. From the people of the ancient world taking a quick dip in the river through the highly technical format of the modern Olympics, the sport has undergone many changes over the centuries. Swimming even played an important role in women's liberation.
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According to FINA, the international governing body for competitive swimming, people have been swimming for at least 6,000 years. Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Louis XI were all known for their skills in the water. Swimming wasn't part of the original Olympic Games, but it was considered a basic skill. In fact, the philosopher Plato once said that a man who doesn't know how to swim lacks a proper education.
Swimming as a Sport
FINA notes that Japan might have hosted the first swimming competitions over 2,000 years ago. Although that claim is tough to prove, hard evidence shows that swimming competitions were common among Japanese schoolchildren by the 1600s. Olympic.org attributes the birth of modern competitive swimming to the National Swimming Society of Great Britain, which began holding events in the late 1800s. The breaststroke was the stroke of choice in those events, although Australians developed the crawl around the same time.
Swimming competition became part of the Olympic Games in 1896. The two official strokes were the breaststroke and the crawl. The backstroke became an official competition stroke in 1904. The butterfly was originally a non-permitted variation on the breaststroke, but became a separate competitive stroke at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Until the turn of the 20th century, women were not considered capable of serious swimming. They wore heavy, cumbersome bathing costumes that allowed them to splash in shallow water but dragged them down in deeper or rougher seas. Born in 1887, Australian Annette Kellerman changed beliefs about women forever. In leg braces by age six due to illness, Kellerman found relief in swimming. She adopted a sensible, one-piece swimsuit that allowed her to move through the water.
Superstardom and Arrest
By age 15, Kellerman was a record-setting competitive swimmer. She then turned professional, performing for sold-out crowds in Melbourne. In 1905, she attempted to cross the English Channel, making it approximately three-quarters of the way. By 1907, she was an international superstar with an aquatic vaudeville show. Kellerman was arrested for indecent exposure in Boston because her swimsuit revealed her thighs, but she won the court case and variations on her suit soon appeared on beaches around the world.
Women in Competition
Thanks to Kellerman’s influence, women became accepted as serious competitors. In 1912, the Olympics added women’s swimming for the first time. Kellerman’s American contemporary, Charlotte Epstein, founded the Women’s Swimming Association in 1920 and coached the American women’s Olympic team through the 1920s. She consulted with FINA to develop an official competition swimsuit for the Paris Olympics in 1924.