Swimming is a competitive and recreational activity consisting of various motions that propel the body through the water. Swimming is considered by most experts to be one of the best forms of physical exercise. When practiced properly the activity utilizes most of the body's muscles and is an excellent conditioner for the cardiovascular system. Much of the wear and tear on the human body that is sometimes associated with land sports, such as running, is reduced in swimming because of the body's buoyancy in water. Physical rehabilitation therapy involving swimming is not uncommon.

International competition in swimming as well as in its sister activity, diving is governed by the Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA). Swimming has been part of the Olympics since its modern-day inception in 1896.


History of Swimming
Swimming predates recorded history. Humans undoubtedly discovered how to swim by accident; a person probably fell into the water and struggled to shore using a dog-paddle stroke.

There exists an Egyptian hieroglyph for swimming dating from 2500 B.C.. The ancient Greeks and Romans made swimming an important part of their military training programs. It is believed that swimming contests were organized in Japan as early as the 1st century B.C.


Modern Gymnastics
During the Middle Ages in Europe, swimming declined in popularity. People felt that the water was contaminated and a source of disease. Fear of the water was not universal, however, and Louis XI reportedly swam daily in the Seine.

During the early 19th century, swimming enjoyed a revival, especially in England; Lord Byron swam the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) to prove that the mythological hero Leander could have done it (see Hero and Leander). Organized competitive swimming began in England in the 1840s. In 1844 the British were surprised when two American Indians demonstrated the efficiency of a method of swimming similar to the modern crawl. The British still swam with the head above the water, a holdover from the days when people believed that the water was contaminated. An overhand stroke was introduced into England in 1873 by J. Arthur Trudgen, who had seen South American Indians using this method to swim quite fast. When the flutter kick was introduced, the modern "Australian crawl" was born, and this stroke has since become the most common and most important swimming stroke.


Major Strokes
A variety of strokes is used in swimming, each requiring different motions. Each also varies in the physical demand placed on the swimmer and degree of speed and efficiency offered.

Crawl. The crawl is not an official FINA-recognized stroke; in events where the contestants are allowed to swim "freestyle," the crawl is universally used. The stroke, which is performed chest-down in the water, involves carrying one arm forward out of the water to nearly full extension, while the other arm is below the surface making a pulling movement that propels the body through the water. The flutter kick is used to add some forward thrust, but it serves mainly as a stabilizing motion. Breathing is accomplished by turning the head to one side or the other and inhaling, then turning the head so that the face is immersed and exhaling the spent air. The breathing is repeated at regular intervals in accord with the pace of the stroke.

Backstroke. The backstroke is similar to the crawl but is performed on the back and without the crawl's breathing requirement. One arm is carried over the head out of the water to prepare for the next stroke, while the arm in the water completes the forward-pulling motion. The flutter kick is used, as in the crawl.

Breaststroke. In this stroke, leg and arm movements are simultaneous. The hands are carried together forward from under the chest to full extension and are then swept back, in a lateral plane, parallel to the body, whereupon the movement is repeated. A frog kick is used: the legs are drawn up, with knees bent and each leg turned outward; the legs are then thrust back parallel to the line of the body. Both arms and legs must not move out of the lateral plane. In competition, swimmers may be disqualified for letting their strokes enter the vertical plane.

Butterfly. This stroke is similar to, and is derived from, the breaststroke. Arm and leg movements are simultaneous, although the most noticeable difference is that the arm recovery after the completion of each stroke is accomplished over, rather than under, the water. This arm movement, reminiscent of a butterfly's flight, gave the stroke its name. The legs are used in a dolphinlike kick in which they remain close together and are alternately bent and straightened out at the knee in a vertical plane. The butterfly stroke is the most physically demanding of all the major strokes.


Competitive Swimming
In competitive swimming events the winners are determined according to the best elapsed times for a particular distance. There are four basic categories of standard Olympic events. The first is freestyle — 100-m (109.3-yd), 200-m (218.6-yd), and 400-m (437.2-yd) for both men and women; 800-m (874.4-yd) for women; 1,500-m (1,639.5-yd) for men; and 4 x 100-m and (for men) 4 x 200-m relay races. The second is backstroke — 100-m and 200-m. The third is breaststroke — 100-m and 200-m. The fourth is butterfly — 100-m and 200-m. These basic categories are also combined into medley (races in which each of the four basic strokes is used by the swimmer or team in a certain sequence): 200-m and 400-m individual races and 4 x 100-m relay races.

Buck Dawson

Bibliography: Colvin, Cecil, Swimming Dynamics: Winning Techniques and Strategies (1998); Counsilman, James E. and Brian E., The Complete Book of Swimming, 2d ed. (1994); Hines, Emmett W., Fitness Swimming (1998); Maglischo, Ernest W., Swimming Even Faster, 2d ed. (1993); Reilly, T., et al., eds., Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming (1992); Vickers, Vincent S., Swimming, 7th ed. (1999); YMCA of the U.S.A. Staff, Teaching Swimming Fundamentals (1999).