Gentlemen & Natives

by Casey Barrett

Exploring the Origins of the Strokes…

Breaststroke came first. At least according to the conquerors, who decide such things. When the first books were written, when the first aquatic feats were recorded, this was the stroke that meant “swimming.” It was the stroke of gentlemen and ladies – slow and in control, with the swimmer’s head out of the water, in full survey of his watery domain. When crossing wine dark bodies of water, you didn’t want your face in. Goggles were still many centuries away.

It’s the stroke that Matthew Webb used when he became the first man to cross the English Channel in 1875. It’s the stroke that early swimming promoter, Ben Franklin, used when he considered launching a swim school in London instead of helping to launch a nation across the pond. (True story…)

But history isn’t fact, it’s just subjective hindsight, and the history of swimming is no different. As the gentlemen of the Renaissance were slowly developing swimming as a sport, another stroke was being practiced – a good deal faster – by swimmers whose histories do not fill Western history books. I’m referring to the “native” races on far flung continents – the ones who first figured out that freestyle was the fastest way to move through the water. Presumably, wet hair did not bother them quite as much as the prim practitioners in Europe.

In a fantastic new book called “Swim, Why We Love the Water“, author Lynn Sherr provides a fascinating history of our sport, tracing the roots of swimming farther back than humanity itself to our present day obsessions with this strange underwater art. I read it with a pen last week and my jealousy mounted with every turn of the page. I wish I’d written it. One month after its release, I’ll confidently call it the best book on swimming ever written. (This, despite three unfortunate fact-checking errors in its section on present-day Olympians…) Sherr is interested in the act and the art of swimming itself; the elite competitive side is just one element of her book, but in its less than 200 pages, there’s an endless encyclopedia of stories worth expanding upon.

Like this one: Back in 1844, a Canadian entrepreneur named Arthur Rankin invited a group of Ojibwa Indians to London, as guests of the British Swimming Society. On an April day at the High Holborn baths, the Society staged a match race between their Indian guests. (Please forgive the use of the word “Indian” instead of Native Americans in this context; the politically correct term was not yet coined…) Over a 40-meter course, the aptly named Flying Gull defeated his closest competitor named Tobacco. Sherr quotes a London Times sports reporter at the time: “They lash the water violently with their arms, like the sails of a windmill, and beat downwards with their feet…” Aka, early freestyle.

The first Modern Olympics were still 52 years away, but the foundation was set. The two core strokes were in place. One, the practice of proper society, the other, the form of the natives out on the world’s frontiers. It’s notable that Sherr finds evidence that this early freestyle was not just practiced by the Native Americans; it was also the chosen stroke of indigenous peoples of South America and the South Pacific. Freestyle, it seems, was the way forward for those free of society’s structures.

And what about the other two, the backstroke and the butterfly? Mere mutants, born from their respective parents. Backstroke, after all, is not much more than straight-armed freestyle rolled over. And butterfly was birthed by innovative breaststrokers seeking an edge. For evidence, check out this old clip of the 200 breast final at the 1948 Olympics in London. (Be patient, the race itself is about two minutes in…) They’re swimming with butterfly arms and a still-morphing breast-into-dolphin kick. Eight years later, the butterfly was its own event at the 1956 Olympics. And thus, the individual medley came to be too…

Every swim fan on earth will be watching the Games in London this summer, and by this point we’ve all taken the established strokes for granted. Four disciplines, three relays, 13 individual races for gold. But as a Faulkner-quoting friend said earlier today: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Worth remembering the next time you watch this ever-evolving sport on the big Olympic stage…

Because when tattoo-covered Tony Ervin steps on the blocks in London, I know I’ll be thinking of Flying Gull, another free-flying American native who sprinted to glory in front of the gentlemen.