|Michael Phelps swimming butterfly at 2012 London Olympics
Everyone has their favourite sport and, while the Olympics showcase just about every sport that exists, my favourite events of course are the swimming ones. However, after watching the awesome performance of Michael Phelps in this summer's Olympics, I was struck by the fact of how few people there are who take up the sport of swimming. This in spite of the fact 3/4 of our planet is covered in sea water and 80% of the world's population lives within 60 miles of the ocean.
100 million years ago mammals became the dominant animals on earth, the culmination of a 500 million year struggle to climb out of the primordial swamp and evolve into land based creatures. While mankind only started making its appearance in the last 200,000 years I guess it's no surprise that, after spending this much time getting onto land, the first choice in sports usually involves running in some form or another. There is some sort of innate reluctance for most mammals in general, and humans in particular, to get wet even if they are quite capable of being very good swimmers.
Nonetheless, in spite of finally getting their feet on dry land, an interesting thing happened about 50 million years ago when some of the mammals decided they wanted to get back into the ocean. The reasons aren't exactly clear, but the most obvious one is that it was easier to get a bite to eat. Even today fish still provides the majority of humans with their protein, in spite of overfishing and everything else we've done, and the ocean, with its plankton based ecosystem, continues to support an incredible number and variety of fish, birds, reptiles and mammals.
There are three main groups of marine mammals; the sirenians (manatees & dugongs), pinnipeds (seals, sea lions & walruses), and cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises), though polar bears and otters are also starting to be classed as marine mammals. While pinnipeds spend most of their time in the water they are only considered semi-aquatic because they still have to mate, breed, and molt on land. Sirenians and cetaceans on the other hand are fully aquatic ocean dwellers.
|Stellar Sea Lion
In evolutionary terms it didn't take that long for the land based ancestors of cetaceans, sirenians, and pinnipeds to get back into the ocean (about 15 million years) but they didn't turn into fish and they still need to breathe air from the surface. Amongst other things hands and feet adapted to become flippers and tail flukes for propulsion, lungs and other internal organs evolved to facilitate the high pressure of being underwater for extended periods of time, and they developed blubber as a means of conserving heat and providing insulation. Mankind, on the other hand, has been a little faster adapting to the ocean thanks to inventions like wetsuits for warmth, SCUBA gear for underwater breathing and, most importantly, developing a variety of swimming techniques that allows us to use the arms and legs we already have without waiting for them to turn into flippers.
There are four primary swimming strokes now recognized by FINA, the international association that administers swimming competitions; backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle which is normally front crawl but can be any form of swimming style. It has taken approximately 100 years to develop these distinct swimming strokes and they continue to be refined and improved upon even to this day as scientists and coaches gain more knowledge about propulsion, hydrodynamics, and conditioning. Butterfly, the newest stroke to be developed, is the closest swimming style to that of the marine mammals and, in retrospect, given man's capacity to copy Nature, the one that should have been developed first.
From ancient pictures and drawings showing people swimming a primitive form of breaststroke it would appear this was the first stroke humans learned and it was certainly the most common stroke for most of the world until the 20th century. By 1844 the sidestroke had also been developed and, along with breaststroke, were the only strokes used in swimming competitions organized by the National Swimming Society in England, in spite of being beaten by North American Indians who used a swimming style that resembled what would soon become known as front crawl. By the 1900 Paris Olympics an early form of backstroke (essentially an upside down breaststroke) was also a recognized swimming style.
By 1895 the sidestroke had evolved to an overarm sidestroke and, in 1901, the forerunner of front crawl a stroke called the trudgen, was introduced (after John Trudgen who copied it from South American Indians, using a hand over hand style combined with a scissor kick). In 1902 the trudgen was modified to combine an up and down kick with an alternating overarm stroke and became known as the Australian crawl after the Australian Richard Cavill who swam 100 yards in 58.4 seconds to win the International Championships. Cavill's technique had been inspired by a Solomon Island native who in turn came from a long line of Polynesian swimming tradition that was far more advanced than the Europeans. An upside down version of this stroke then became the new style of backstroke pioneered by Harry Hebner.
In the 1933 the breaststroke was modified by Henry Myers to use an out of water butterfly style arm action with the regular breaststroke kick and was called butterfly breaststroke. The dolphin kick, invented in 1935 by Jack Sieg, was not allowed to be combined with the butterfly arm action until the 1950's when it was finally recognized as a separate stroke for competition. Breaststroke then went back to a stroke with the arms recovering in front of the breast and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics was the first year the four recognized competitive swimming strokes were on display.
|Captain Mathew Webb
|Another great female open water swimmer is the Canadian Vicki Keith who not only holds the record for crossing all five Great Lakes, she was also the first person, in 1989, to swim the English Channel doing butterfly. She holds the record for the longest solo swim distance (94 km) longest solo swim time (63 hours 40 minutes) and the greatest distance, male or female, for butterfly (80.2 km). This marathon swimmer comes closer than anyone else on earth to being a human marine mammal, and demonstrating that butterfly is the new stroke.
For men or women swimming is a great sport and wonderfully kind to bones and joints because, unlike running, there is no impact with any hard surface. You can go as fast and as far as you want, do it solo or with as many others as you choose, and you can be indoors or outside. Of course I would suggest that outside is best but, for those who haven't taken to the water already, it's time to get started, you've got four different strokes to choose from. Swim, don't run.
|Nelson doing butterfly in English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga