I remember the first time I plunged into a swimming pool. I was probably 8 or 9 years old, and I was well aware of how overweight I was. I feared that if I were to go inside the clear, blue, funny-smelling water, I would definitely die in it. And I thought that being chubby would drag me down to the bottom faster.
My best friend was already inside the swimming pool, urging me to come in. She told me that she would keep me safe, and would not let anything happen to me. Reassured, I dipped my toe into the pool. The cold water stung at me, and I removed my toe from the water. I could see my best friend getting impatient. I took a deep breath, silenced all the thoughts and fears rushing through my head, and jumped in.
It was, to say the least, surprisingly refreshing. As my feet landed at the bottom of the pool, I instinctively propelled myself back up to the surface. At the top, I gasped for air and my hands quickly searched for something to hold on to. My best friend took my hand and laughed at me.
Over time, as my confidence grew and my anxiety melted away, my best friend taught me the basics of swimming.
Since swimming is a day-to-day skill, it comes as no surprise that it dates back to the Stone Age. According to cave paintings, the primitive man used to swim in order to cross rivers and lakes. Swimming has even been mentioned in Greek mythology. However, swimming was not recognized as an organized sport until the 19th century.
The very first indoor swimming pool became open to the public in 1828 in England. Then, in 1837, the National Swimming Society started organizing swimming competitions. Back then, the swimmers generally used the breaststroke (or something similar to it) to swim. In 1844, two Native Americans participated in one of the swimming competitions and introduced a new style of swimming to the English crowd. An English swimmer named Sir John Arthur Trudgen took note of the Native Americans’ unique swimming style and developed it into what we know today as the trudgen or the racing stroke – regarded as one of the most powerful strokes to use today.
Swimming was first introduced in the Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. The Olympic events were freestyle in the beginning, until the backstroke was added in 1900. In 1912, women’s swimming was added to the Games.
During the 1940s, breaststroke swimmers found out that they were able to speed up if they bring both arms over their heads. This was immediately prohibited in breaststroke swimming, but this practice created the butterfly stroke (which would later be included in the Olympic Games in 1956). Today, four major strokes are mainly used in competitive swimming – freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly.
The rules of competitive swimming are pretty simple and straightforward. In the Olympics, the pool must measure 50 meters long, 25 meters wide, and 2 meters deep. The pool is divided into ten lanes labelled zero to nine or one to ten; the first and the last lanes are usually left empty in the semi-finals and finals. Each lane must be 2.5 meters wide. There are electronic timer pads positioned underwater to record the swimmers’ times.
There are a number of officials that preside over Olympic swimming. There is one referee to manage the entire procedure. There are four stroke judges to look for abnormalities in the strokes used by the swimmers. There are two race-start officials, two lead-turn officials, and two turn inspectors to make sure each swimmer touches the wall and turns correctly.
Competitive swimmers normally equip themselves with goggles, swimming caps, and swimsuits. However, certain types of swimsuits are banned from the Olympics. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, some swimmers wore polyurethane and neoprene suits that helped them win the races and even broke records. These suits were found to repel water and helped bodies stay afloat. Now, only suits made mainly from woven fabric were allowed. Men’s suits were only allowed to reach from the waist to the knees; women’s suits could extend from the chest to the knees.
According to FINA (Fédération internationale de natation) – the governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming, and open water swimming – competitive swimmers are prohibited from certain actions. They are not allowed to pull on the lane line to drive themselves forward. They cannot walk along the bottom of the pool while the race is in progress. Any floatation or propulsion devices are disallowed, therefore swim fins, webbed gloves, or hand paddles cannot be used. Of course, swimmers must finish in the same lane in which they began.
You can’t think of Olympic swimming without thinking of Michael Phelps. This 30-year-old American has won a total of 22 medals, 18 of which are gold. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he obtained 8 gold medals, thus breaking the record of the most first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games. His many feats and achievements both inside and outside the Olympics has earned him the Swimming World magazine’s Swimmer of the Year Award seven times, the American Swimmer of the Year Award nine times, and the FINA Swimmer of the Year Award. Sports Illustrated magazine even named him the Sportsman of the Year in 2008.
Like Michael Phelps, Australian Ian Thorpe is another well-known swimmer from the Olympics. So far, he has won 5 Olympic gold medals, and was the most successful athlete in the 2000 Summer Olympics (having won three gold and two silver medals). He was the first person to win Swimming World’s Swimmer of the Year award four times, and was Australian Swimmer of the Year for four years. He was also presented with Medal of the Order of Australia for service to sport in 2001.
Mark Spitz – also known as ‘Mark the Shark’ – is considered the greatest swimmer in history. He has 9 Olympic gold medals. In the 1972 Munich Olympics (where he won 7 gold medals), he broke world records in all seven events he participated in. During his career as a competitive swimmer, he set 35 new world records. Swimming World named him Swimmer of the Year three times.
Eight-time Olympic gold medallist Jennifer Elisabeth Thompson is another decorated Olympic athlete. She has a total of twelve medals which she won in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics. In 1993 and 1998, she was named USA Swimming’s Swimmer of the Year, Swimming World’s Female World Swimmer of the Year in 1998, Women’s Sports Foundation’s Athlete of the Year in 2000, and the Female American Swimmer of the Year in 1993, 1998 and 1999. Sports Illustrated ranked her as the 62nd Greatest Female Athlete of All Time in 1999.
The first woman to win six gold medals at a single Olympic games is Kristin Otto from Germany, which she did in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She also managed to set world records in the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke, and 100m butterfly events. Swimming World named awarded her Female World Swimmer of the Year three times.
Swimming may not look like a tough sport, but athletes who do compete in it need to be in physically fit condition. Swimming not only trains one’s cardiovascular fitness, but also one’s strength. Believe me, wading in water takes up a lot of power.