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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Theory Why Breaststroke And Freestyle Were Developed

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

When we first heard of Captain Matthew Webb's unprecedented swim across the English Channel in 1875, we were impressed that someone in 1875 was able to swim from England to France in 21 hours 45 minutes.

We were even more impressed when we realized that he swam the entire way breaststroke.

When competitive swimming was first introduced in Great Britain around 1800, mostly breaststroke was used. Breaststroke continued to be the swimming stroke of choice throughout Europe, although sidestroke was also used by many.

The freestyle was first seen in a swimming race held in 1844 in London where it was demonstrated by Native Americans. Two Anishinaabe, Flying Gull and Tobacco, from Canada (First Nations) were invited by the British Swimming Society to race one another in an exhibition at the swimming baths in High Holborn. After the demonstration, English society considered this style to be barbarically "un-European" due to the splashing and kicking as the British continued to swim only the breaststroke in competition.

Three decades later, English swimmer John Trudgen introduced an overhead freestyle-like stroke in 1873 after copying the front crawl he saw native South Americans use in Argentina. But his trudgen stroke integrated a scissor kick from the more commonly used sidestroke into the trudgen stroke instead of the traditional flutter kick traditional used in the Americas in order to reduce splashing.

This hybrid stroke (trudgen stroke) was faster than breaststroke and sidestroke and started to become more widespread.

Later, Alick Wickham from the Solomon Islands [shown on left] introduced the freestyle stroke to Australia when he demonstrated the crawl at Bronte Beach in Australia.

At the time, freestyle was widespread in many parts of the Pacific.

As the Native Americans and South Pacific Islands used a form of freestyle prior to the 20th century, the sub-Sahara African people were known to be very proficient in the water, especially those who learned to swim in the coastal and river villages of west Africa. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the west Africans were regarded as the world’s greatest swimmers of their era. African swimmers and divers discovered enormous wealth by harvesting pearls and recovering sunken treasures in offshore waters in the course of their slave labor.

On the other side of the globe, the Japanese had continued its development of suijutsu (水術 in Japanese) that was a part of the samurai's training over the millennia. The Japanese warriors develop a variety of swimming skills because Japan is surrounded by water where combat took place. Depending on the speed, size, and depth of the water that was nearby, different swimming skills were developed. They developed methods for swimming under water, shinden ryu (marathon swimming), kankai ryu (ocean swimming), suifu ryu (river swimming or swimming in fast-moving rapids), as well as several other methods that were based on the topography and waterways (e.g., coastline or mountain areas). For example, if the samurai had to fight while wearing armor, they would study the kobori ryu where the samurai would eggbeater (tread water) while keeping their upper body above water to fight with swords, fire arrows or guns while in or crossing a river.

So while the Europeans focused on breaststroke and sidestroke for much of history, it was the peoples of Africa, the Americas, South Pacific and Japan that had developed other means to propel themselves in the water.

Why did these different types of swimming styles develop over history?

This is a question that has not been answered in our research.

But we have a theory.

The freestyle stroke is faster and is more conducive to moving quickly through the water, especially due to the more streamlined body and head position relative to breaststroke. So while the breaststroke is comfortable and relatively easy to learn for many, the freestyle most probably took a bit more training and effort to become proficient.

But in the calm conditions of lakes and lidos throughout Great Britain and other major European cities of pre-20th century society, it was not necessary to move quickly through the water. Swimming was a leisure activity with very few people doing it as a profession or even in competition. Breaststroke was sufficient and acceptable in these tranquil conditions - and the preferred swimming style used by Captain Matthew Webb on the first crossing of the English Channel.

But in locations where ocean swells, waves, currents, eddies and tidal conditions made the offshore waters more turbulent, a faster swimming style was necessary. Therefore, it made sense that the peoples of coastal Africa, coastal American cities, South Pacific islands and Japan would developed other (faster) means to propel themselves in the water. People could get in and out of the surf with the more streamlined freestyle; less so, swimming breaststroke. People could catch fish and hunt for - or swim away from - marine life better with freestyle than breaststroke.

So, although this theory is yet to be vetted by aquatic anthropologists, we can imagine that breaststroke was developed over time by people who swam in relatively tranquil conditions while freestyle was found to be more useful by people who swam in more turbulent conditions.

In essence, the existence and lack of waves and currents may have played a role in the development of swimming styles over the centuries in different locations around the globe.

We welcome any comments and finding by anthropologists and historians as to whether or not this theory holds any water. To send information, submit questions or alternative theories or evidence, email here.

Fresco above is from the Qing dynasty located in the Potala Palace in Tibet.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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