The History of Swimming as a Sport

Swimming as an activity has been around since the dawn of life, as it is a required action for the survival of many species. Humans have known how to swim for the entirety of our history, and throughout the years we have learned how to refine our swimming skills to help us conquer the water.

But when exactly did swimming become a sport? Who transformed swimming from a simple survival skill into a competitive sport that granted prizes and incentives for people to develop different strokes?

Below are some of the most interesting history facts about the origin of swimming as a sport and as a competitive activity. Check it out!

Swimming in Early Modern History

During the time of the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance, certain inventors and innovators had toyed with the idea of improving upon swimming skills and helping people learn how to swim in more efficient ways. French author Melchisédech Thévenot wrote a book titled The Art of Swimming in 1696, making it the first printed instructional piece about certain strokes. It highlighted an early version of the breaststroke, teaching people how to properly swim in the water.

One hundred years later, in 1798, the author GutsMuths wrote a book in German, with the English translated title as Small Study Book of The Art of Swimming for Self-Study, which became a standard teaching device in teaching people how to swim. This is what paved the way for swimming to become a serious and competitive sport in Europe and across the globe.

Swimming Goes Competitive

The earliest signs of swimming as a competitive sport are shown in England in the early 1800s. Although swimming and the different swimming techniques had been around for quite a while, this was the first time that people decided to turn it into a sport.

St. George’s Baths was opened as the first public swimming pool in 1828. A few years later, the National Swimming Society was formed, and began to hold consistent swimming competitions around London. By then, several public pools had opened up, and the sport of swimming was growing in popularity on a rapid scale.

The sport became so popular that people from different nations and cultures decided to participate in the event. In 1844, an international swimming competition was held, and two Native Americans entered as participants. One of them, named Flying Gull, defeated the British competitor because he used a front crawl stroke, which was faster than the British traditional breaststroke. The front crawl had been used by the Native American peoples for generations, but the British were not aware of that type of swimming technique.

Several decades later, a man by the name of Captain Matthew Webb was the first person to successfully swim the English Channel between France and England. Using the breaststroke, he completed almost 22 miles in less than 22 hours.

Other Countries Join the Fray

By the late 1800s, several other countries got on board with competitive swimming, and wanted to establish national organizations of their own. Germany, France, and Hungary founded their national swimming federations, and Scotland held its first women’s swimming competition in 1892.

A woman by the name of Nancy Edberg made women’s swimming a legitimate sport by giving people access to swimming lessons at all ages and all genders. Around this time period, the first lifesaving device was invented to make swimming a safer and more accessible activity.

The first Olympic swimming competition was held in Athens in 1896, and four swimming events took place: The 100m, the 500m, the 1200m freestyle and the 100m for sailors. A Hungarian took the first gold metal, and an Austrian won the next.

Since its rise and success as a competitive sport, swimming has gone on to be improved upon with a series of innovations and techniques that have standardized the role of professionalism in swimming across the globe. Now, competitive swimming is enjoyed in almost every country in the world, and continues to make a huge impact at the Olympic Games and beyond.