Swimming has been known since prehistoric times; the earliest recording of swimming dates back to Stone Age paintings from around 7,000 years ago. Written references date from 2000 BC. Some of the earliest references include the Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, Beowulf, and other sagas. In 1538, Nikolaus Wynmann, a German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book, The Swimmer or A Dialogue on the Art of Swimming (Der Schwimmer oder ein Zwiegespräch über die Schwimmkunst). Competitive swimming in Europe started around 1800, mostly using breaststroke. In 1873 John Arthur Trudgen introduced the trudgen to Western swimming competitions, after copying the front crawl used by Native Americans. Due to a British disregard for splashing, Trudgen employed a scissor kick instead of the front crawl's flutter kick. Swimming was part of the first modern Olympic games in 1896 in Athens. In 1902 Richard Cavill introduced the front crawl to the Western world. In 1908, the world swimming association, Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), was formed. Butterfly was developed in the 1930s and was at first a variant of breaststroke, until it was accepted as a separate style in 1952.
Cave paintings from the Stone Age were found in the "Cave of Swimmers" near Wadi Sora on the Gilf Kebir plateau in southwestern Egypt, near the Libyan border. These pictures seem to show breaststroke or dog paddle, although it may also be possible that the movements have a ritual meaning unrelated to swimming. This cave is also featured in the movie The English Patient. An Egyptian clay seal dated between 4000 BC and 9000 BC shows four swimmers who are believed to be swimming a variant of the front crawl. More references to swimming are found in Babylonian bas-reliefs and Assyrian wall drawings, depicting a variant of the breaststroke. The most famous drawings were found in the Kebir desert and are estimated to be from around 4000 BC The Nagoda bas-relief also shows swimmers dating back from 3000 BC The Indian palace Mohenjo Daro from 2800 BC contains a swimming pool sized 30 m by 60 m. The Minoan palace Minos of Knossos in Crete also featured baths. An Egyptian tomb from 2000 BC shows a variant of the front crawl. Depictions of swimmers were also found from the Hittites, Minoans, and other Middle Eastern civilizations, in the Tepantitla compound at Teotihuacan, and in mosaics in Pompeii.
Written references date back to 2000 BC including Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible (Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42, Isaiah 25:11), Beowulf, and other sagas, although the style is never described. There are also many mentions of swimmers in the Vatican, Borgian and Bourbon codices.
In Japan swimming was one of the noble skills of the Samurai, and historic records describe swimming competitions in 36 BC organized by emperor Suigui (spelling unclear), which are the first known swimming races.
In 1804 the lifebelt was invented by W. H. Mallison (America?), the device being known at that time as the "Seaman’s Friend". However, the lifebelts took up valuable space on ships, and the United States Navy was worried about the devices being used by sailors to desert.
One watershed event was a swimming competition in 1844 in London. Some Native Americans participated in this competition. While the British raced using breaststroke, the Native Americans swam a variant of the front crawl, which had been used by people in the Americas, West Africa and some Pacific islands for generations, but was not known to the British. As the front crawl is much faster than the breaststroke, the Americans easily beat the British: Flying Gull won the medal, swimming the in 30 seconds, and second place went to another American named Tobacco. Their stroke was described as making a motion with the arms "like a windmill" and kicking the legs up and down. As this produced considerable splashing, it was considered barbaric and "un-European" to the British gentlemen, who preferred to keep their heads above water. Subsequently, the British continued to swim only breaststroke until 1873.
The first indoor swimming pool was built in England in 1862 . An Amateur Swimming Association of Great Britain was organized in 1880 with more than 300 members. The main swimming styles were the breaststroke and the recently developed side stroke. In the sidestroke, the swimmer lies on one side. Initially, the arms were brought forward under water, but this was soon modified to bring the arm forward over water to reduce resistance and to improve the speed, resulting in an overarm sidestroke. The legs were squeezed together in a scissor style. In 1895, J. H. Thayers of England swam in a record-breaking 1:02.50 using a sidestroke.
Sometime between 1870 and 1890 (the date is most often given as 1873), John Arthur Trudgen reintroduced the front crawl to England, having learned the stroke from Native Americans during a trip to South America. His stroke, a variant of the front crawl, came to be called the Trudgen or Trudgeon. The arms were brought forward, alternating, while the body rolled from side to side. The kick was a scissors kick such as that familiarly used in breaststroke, with one kick for two arm strokes, although it is believed that the Native Americans had indeed used a flutter kick. Front crawl variants used different ratios of scissor kicks to arm strokes, or alternated with a flutter (up-and-down) kick. The speed of the new stroke was demonstrated by F.V.C. Lane in 1901, swimming in 1:00.0, an improvement of about ten seconds compared to the breaststroke record. This style is the first European version of the front crawl, the fastest swimming style known today. Due to its speed the Trudgen became very quickly popular around the world, despite all the ungentlemanlike splashing.
Captain Matthew Webb was the first man to swim the English channel (between England and France), in 1875. He used breaststroke, swimming in 21 hours and 45 minutes. No other man or woman swam the channel for the next 31 years. He died in 1882 while attempting to swim the Niagara Falls. The first European amateur swimming competitions were in 1889 in Vienna.
Synchronized swimming started in the late 19th century, and the first competition was in 1891 in Berlin, a men's-only event.
In 1897 Capt. Henry Sheffield designed a rescue can or rescue cylinder, now well known as the lifesaving device in Baywatch. The pointed ends made it slide faster through the water, although it can cause injuries.
The second Olympic games in Paris in 1900 featured 200 m, 1000 m, and 4000 m freestyle, 200 m backstroke, and a 200 m team race (see also Swimming at the 1900 Summer Olympics). There were two additional unusual swimming events (although common at the time) : an obstacle swimming course in the Seine river (swimming with the current), and an underwater swimming race. The 4000 m freestyle was won by John Arthur Jarvis in under one hour, the longest Olympic swimming race ever. The backstroke was also introduced to the Olympic games in Paris, as was water polo. The Osborne Swimming Club from Manchester beat club teams from Belgium, France and Germany quite easily.
The Trudgen was improved by Australian-born Richmond Cavill (born Sydney 1884). Cavill, whose father Frederick Cavill narrowly failed to swim the English Channel, is credited with developing the stroke by observing a young boy from the Solomon Island, Alick Wickham. Cavill and his brothers (Sydney, Charles, Arthur, Ernest and Percy) were all champion swimmers and formed arguably the greatest swimming dynasty. They spread the Australian crawl to England, New Zealand and America. Richmond - or Dick as he was better known - used this stroke in 1902 at an International Championships in England to set a new world record by outswimming all Trudgen swimmers over the in 0:58.4
The Olympics in 1904 in St. Louis included races over , 100 yards, , 440 yards, and one mile (1.6 km) freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and the 4x50 yards freestyle relay (see also Swimming at the 1904 Summer Olympics). These games differentiated between breaststroke and freestyle, so that there were now two defined styles (breaststroke and backstroke) and freestyle, where most people swam Trudgen. These games also featured a competition to plunge for distance, where the distance without swimming, after jumping in a pool, was measured.
In 1907 the swimmer Annette Kellerman from Australia visited the United States as an "Underwater Ballerina", a version of Synchronized swimming, diving into glass tanks. She was arrested for indecent exposure, as her swimsuit showed arms, legs and the neck. Kellerman changed the suit to have long arms and legs, and a collar, still keeping the close fit revealing the shapes underneath. She later starred in several movies, including one about her life.
In 1908, the world swimming association Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) was formed.
Women were first allowed to swim in the Olympic Games in 1912 in Stockholm, competing in freestyle races. (Women could participate in golf and tennis since 1900 in Paris). In the 1912 games, Harry Hebner of the United States won the 100 m backstroke. At these games Duke Kahanamoku from Hawaii won the 100 m freestyle, having learned the six kicks per cycle front crawl from older natives of his island. This style is now considered the classical front crawl style. The men's competitions were 100 m, 400 m, and 1500 m Freestyle, 100 m backstroke, 200 m and 400 m breaststroke, and four by 200 m freestyle relay. The women’s competitions were 100 m freestyle and four by 100 m freestyle relay.
On 28 July 1912, an 800 m long pier in Binz on the island of Rügen, Germany collapsed under the load of 1000 people waiting for the cruise steamer Kronprinz Wilhelm. Sailors of the German navy were able to save most people, but 17 people died because they could not swim, including seven children. This catastrophe caused the foundation of the Deutsche Lebens-Rettungs-Gesellschaft (DLRG) (German lifesaving organization) on October 19 1913 in Leipzig. In the same year the first elastic swimsuit was made by the sweater company Jantzen.
In 1922, Johnny Weissmuller became the first person to swim the 100 m in less than a minute, using a six kicks per cycle Australian crawl. Johnny Weissmuller started the golden age of swimming and was the world's most famous swimmer, winning five Olympic medals and 36 national championships and never losing a race in his ten-year career, until he retired from swimming and started his second career starring as Tarzan in film. His record of 51 seconds in freestyle stood for over 17 years. In the same year, Sybil Bauer was the first woman to break a men’s world record over the 440 m backstroke in 6:24.8.
At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, lane dividers made of cork were used for the first time, and lines on the pool bottom aided with orientation.
1928 was the start of the scientific study of swimming by David Armbruster, coach at the University of Iowa, filming underwater swimmers. The Japanese also used underwater photography to research the stroke mechanics, and subsequently dominated the 1932 Summer Olympics. Armbruster also researched a problem of breaststroke where the swimmer was slowed down significantly while bringing the arms forward underwater. In 1934 Armbruster refined a method to bring the arms forward over water in breaststroke. While this "butterfly" technique was difficult, it brought a great improvement in speed. One year later, in 1935, Jack Sieg, a swimmer also from the University of Iowa developed a technique involving swimming on his side and beating his legs in unison similar to a fish tail, and modified the technique afterward to swim it face down. Armbruster and Sieg combined these techniques into a variant of the breaststroke called butterfly with the two kicks per cycle being called dolphin fishtail kick. Using this technique Sieg swam in 1:00.2. However, even though this technique was much faster than regular breaststroke, the dolphin fishtail kick violated the rules and was not allowed. Therefore, the butterfly arms with a breaststroke kick were used by a few swimmers in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin for the breaststroke competitions. In 1938, almost every breaststroke swimmer was using this butterfly style, yet this stroke was considered a variant of the breaststroke until 1952, when it was accepted as a separate style with a set of rules.
Around that time another modification to the backstroke became popular. Previously, the arms were held straight during the underwater push phase, for example by the top backstroke swimmer from 1935 to 1945, Adolph Kiefer. However, Australian swimmers developed a technique where the arms are bent under water, increasing the horizontal push and the resulting speed and reducing the wasted force upward and sideways. This style is now generally used worldwide. In 1935 topless swimsuits for men were worn for the first time during an official competition.
In 1943 the US ordered the reduction of fabric in swimsuits by 10% due to wartime shortages, resulting in the first two piece swimsuits. Shortly afterwards the Bikini was invented in Paris by Louis Reard (officially) or Jacques Heim (earlier, but slightly larger).
Another modification was developed for breaststroke. In breaststroke, breaking the water surface increases the friction, reducing the speed of the swimmer. Therefore, swimming underwater increases the speed. This led to a controversy at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, and six swimmers were disqualified as they repeatedly swam long distances underwater between surfacing to breathe. The rule was changed to require breaststroke to be swum at the surface starting with the first surfacing after the start and after each turn. However, one Japanese swimmer, Masaru Furukawa, circumvented the rule by not surfacing at all after the start, but swimming as much of the lane under water as possible before breaking the surface. He swam all but 5 m under water for the first three 50 m laps, and also swam half under water for the last lap, winning the gold medal. The adoption of this technique led to many swimmers suffering from oxygen starvation or even some swimmers passing out during the race due to a lack of air, and a new breaststroke rule was introduced by the FINA, additionally limiting the distance that can be swum under water after the start and every turn, and requiring the head to break the surface every cycle. The 1956 Games in Melbourne also saw the introduction of the body roll, a sort of tumble turn to faster change directions at the end of the lane.
In 1972 another famous swimmer, Mark Spitz, was at the height of his career. During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, he won seven gold medals. Shortly thereafter in 1973, the first swimming world cup was held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia by the FINA.
Breaking the water surface reduces the speed in swimming. The swimmers Daichi Suzuki (Japan) and David Berkoff (America) used this for the 100 m backstroke at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Berkoff swam 33 m of the first lane completely underwater using only a dolphin kick, surfacing just before the turn, far ahead of his competition. A sports commentator called this a Berkoff Blastoff. Suzuki, having practiced the underwater technique for 10 years, surfaced only a little bit earlier, winning the race in 55.05. At that time, this was not restricted by FINA backstroke rules. The backstroke rules were quickly changed in the same year by the FINA to ensure the health and safety of the swimmers, limiting the underwater phase after the start to ten meters, which was expanded to 15 m in 1991. In Seoul, Kristin Otto from East Germany won six gold medals, the most ever won by a woman.
Another innovation is the use of flipturns for backstroke. According to the rules, a backstroke swimmer had to touch the wall while lying less than 90 degrees out of the horizontal. Some swimmers discovered that they could turn faster if they rolled almost 90 degrees sideways, touched the wall, and made a forward tumble turn, pushing off the wall on their backs. The FINA has changed the rules to allow the swimmers to turn over completely before touching the wall to simplify this turn and to improve the speed of the races.
Similarly, the dolphin-kick underwater swimming technique is now also used for butterfly. Consequently, in 1998 FINA introduced a rule limiting swimmers to 15 meters underwater per lap before they must surface.
After underwater swimming for freestyle and backstroke, the underwater swimming technique is now also used for butterfly, for example by Denis Pankratov (Russia) or Angela Kennedy (Australia), swimming large distances underwater with a dolphin kick. FINA is again considering a rule change for safety reasons. It is currently unclear if it is possible to swim faster underwater than swimming freestyle or front crawl at the surface. (In 2005 FINA declared that you may take 1 underwater dolphin kick in the motion of a breststroke pull-out)
In 1998 Benoît Lecomte swam across the Atlantic Ocean, a total of 5,600 kilometres in 72 days, swimming 6 to 8 hours daily. He was accompanied by two sailors on a sailboat.