History of Ideas in Swimming by Peter Daland and Forbes Carlile (1998)


Daland: Forbes and I have not really compared notes, but fortunately are going to talk about different periods of swimming. We did compare notes five minutes ago, and I think it is going to work out.


First of all, there have been a lot of changes. I want to mention some little changes that have made a great difference in the sport. Goggles. Most of you didn’t coach before goggles. I coached and swam without goggles. I don’t think they are a critical difference, although they do improve visibility on turns. If you get a little bit of chlorine in your eyes, you won’t die from it, and so I am not sure that they are as critical as swimmers of today think.


Lane lines are terribly important. That has been a huge change. So if you are comparing a Weismuller time say with that of a Matt Biondi, lane lines are a big, big factor. In the old days either they had no lane lines, or they had rope, perhaps a quarter of an inch thick, with floats. What does that mean? Virtually nothing. It is just to keep you from bumping into your neighbor, but it doesn’t break waves.


Slope starting blocks. All starting blocks used to be flat, and then some wise person decided to slope them. Then the FINA wrote rules about how much to slope and so forth. It is a big factor helping today’s swimmers.


Hand paddles. We have a hand paddle manufacturer in our mist. They make a difference. I think it is a huge factor particularly for people swimming long races.


Pulling tubes. Now many of you used to remember that they used to tie the feet with a band, or we put them through a small tube. How many of you remember that, raise your hands? Well, about half good. Unfortunately, most programs don’t use those anymore. They now contend themselves with a pull buoy, which is a bit of a crutch and doesn’t offer very much resistance. The upshot is that many people can pull faster than they can swim. In the old days when you had the tube, you couldn’t do it, or when your feet were tied.


Abbreviation of suits. Many women used to have a skirt on their suits, when I first started coaching. It was a definite handicap. The suit manufacturer started inching toward no skirt. And then finally, the people making the rules decided to let’s take the skirt off. We have gotten a lot briefer than that since. Suits were a considerable drag, particularly for women. Men’s suits have gotten briefer, but not that big of a change. And now full suits are coming back in. We don’t know if the full suit is going to stick, at the moment it is sort of a fad. He wore a full suit, he did his best time, that must be the answer.

Caps for men. Outside of water polo, I have never heard of caps for men, when I was swimming or when I started coach. We said men wearing caps, what kind of men are those?


Coach influence and administration. That is something that is important, and it is growing. If the professional does his job, he really should be the best-informed person to direct the sport. Tragically, probably 90% of our coaches do not qualify to do that, they don’t think it is important. Oh, I would like to go to the convention, and I like to be part of USS Swimming – leadership and making rules, but that is not my thing. Hey, it better be! Many parents have risen to fame and glory as administrators and one of the reasons was, the coach didn’t want to represent the club locally. He didn’t want to put the time in on it. Some of those parent administrators are very good. But like coaches, some of them aren’t.


Changes in local and national programs. Good Lord, we are just changing everything. In fact, Olympics are now going to have semi-finals again for 50s, 100s and 200s. That is a change, a huge change. It is a change that affects and that helps this country. The deep team gets more medals out of that change, and we were opposed to it. I am still opposed to it. But anyway, it is going in.


Money for athletes. Wow! $50,000 if you win. I know a lot of coaches don’t earn $50,000 – most. Probably 95% of all coaches do not earn as much money as an athlete will win gain from winning an Olympic first for the United States. Think about that. When are we going to get $50,000 for the coach?  That  is the big thing! I hope you people are listening and working on these things.


Proliferation of international championships. Next summer  we have four international championships, and we are sending four teams. That is an awful lot of competition. And, as Chuck said, we probably need more time for training and less time for running around to championships.


There have been many other things. Title IX helped women, and that was needed, and that was good, but it is decimating men’s swimming. Nobody stands up in the USOC and lifts a finger. Nobody, except one man I know, Bob Drosett, gets in touch with congressmen trying to get a new interpretation based on interests, not money. College coaches are saying cut your squad, even though they may be walk-ons, cut them so that  we can balance and run in compliance. Is that the way to run sports? It is disgusting. And many other things that I won’t go into, but I just wanted to touch on those little things before I get into some larger issues.


Here are some changes over the past century. I am going to start with Olympic facilities. In 1896 at the first of the modern Olympic games, on a Spring morning, outside of Athens in the bay of Thea in the Pyreus, which is a port city, the Olympic swimming events, took place. Four races and everybody went home. That is a nice program. I think that everybody’s attention span could handle that. Now we have seven days, with two sessions every day. That is a marathon. It is tough for swimmers, tough for coaches, and tough for public. That is a lot of days to stay focused in on one sport. But, on that day in 1896 in the bay of Thea and the Agrion Sea, it was rather interesting because the shorter races, the 100-Free and the 100-Free for Greek sailors, second event, the 500-Free were all basically swum in the bay. The bay was shallow, it was a sunshiny day and the water was quite tolerable, even though  it was late March. But, when we came to the 1600-meter swim, the swimmers jumped off the side of a boat well out in the Agrion Sea. They took off and headed through the narrow passageway into the harbor, into the bay and up to a red market which was the finish. Alfred Hielsh, from Hungary, the ultimate winner, afterwards due to the cold water out in the Agrion Sea not in the bay and the high waves, said, “I did not swim for the Olympic Gold Medal, I swam for my life.”


Well, four years later the games went to Paris, France, and things got better. A course was set out in the flowing Seine River. If you have been to Paris, you know the Seine River is the one that goes around the city. The course was set up near the town of Osnea, which is outside the Northwestern side of Paris. All events were in multiples of 200. At first I wondered about that, and then I realized why. It was a 100-Meter course between floating objects, but the Seine River flows, it has a current. So how do you compensate for the current? And here they are starting in the race. You can see this is sort of primitive raft-like thing, and they are all sort of tumbling into the water. There are not lines to direct them. You cannot put lane markers on the bottom of the Seine River, and it is basically primitive. But the sport’s writers of the day praised it and said, “Our wonderful course at Asnea.” They went 100-meters against the current, and then came back and went 100-meters with the current. That wasn’t a bad idea because that more or less cancels out. But they had another problem and that was all of the times were about 15% too fast. And, it didn’t matter (I made quite a little study of it) whether it was the 4,000-meter swim the long one or it was the 200-meter which was just down and back. The times were universally off, and so I concluded that the course was short. In the point of view in keeping best times, I had to throw out all of the Olympic performances of that year.


Then we went on to St. Louis, that was after they were originally going to Chicago, but there became a great fight between Chicago and another place. So St. Louis became the compromise candidate. The swimming events were held in the artificial life saving lake which is no longer in St. Louis, but it was in what is now downtown St. Louis. The course was 110-yards, because we are in America, and we are in yards. There were four other countries other than the United States represented. There were nine swimmers from those four countries, and the other 60 or 80 were all Americans. It was also the national AAU championships, because our people decided that if we are going to run a meet, why just run Olympics, why not make it also the National AAU Championships. It was a rather humble point of view, but they did it. The 110-yard course was between a starting raft and a rope at the other end of the course. I guess you grab the rope and just start swimming the other way. No lane lines, the water was cold and dirty, so it was quite primitive. The guy bending over in the middle of this picture was the great American star, Charlie Daniels. I had occasion to meet him in 1961 at the Outdoor National Championships in Northern California where he gave out awards. Unfortunately, this project was not in mind then. The tall guy, a little bit balding was Haldney of Hungary, who was the guy that won the 100 in this meet. He beat Daniels. It was a great race. They covered a 100-yards which is the distance they raced, which meant that they must have gone through to some sort of a pennant finish in 102 plus. When they dove, the raft went down underwater.  So it wasn’t the greatest starting.


There were other problems. Starting platform was unsteady. One person who wrote about these games said, “Repeatedly officials had to push the crowd from the concrete and wood rim from the choppy venue. America did not distinguish herself in these games from the point of view of running a fine meet fair for all.”


London, 1908, progress came at last. And this I want you to hear, because George Block, the President of ASCA, said that this is the way to run swimming – the 1908 model. Bill Henry, Britain’s oldest swimmer, built a 100-meter by 15-meter course on the edge of the main stadium for the Olympic games at Shepard’s Bush. That stadium seated over 60,000 people. Have you ever heard of an opportunity for swimming for 60,000? There hasn’t been one since. And should be the model for the future. Instead of building an expensive stadium, go find a portable pool, put it in the middle of an existing stadium, and there you have it. You won’t have this crunch on tickets, and all of us can go to places like Sydney, and wherever the next games will be, without any problems. Bill Henry was certainly a visionary. He also put a diving tower for this pool and during track and field events. The tower went down and folded down under the water into the pool, which I think is pretty damn clever. That might be a wave for the future. However, there were no lane markers, and the water was cold and unfiltered.

Here is the breaststroke final. You might say, men or women? Women weren’t in Olympics then, and so it had to be men. The time was about 3-minutes and 9-seconds, which in those days was fantastic.


We’re going to go through some pictures now, and I am going to show you some of the people of the era. (This is a narrative of the pictures shown)


There was an outstanding coach whose name was Lou DeBeHanley, and he was probably the outstanding coach of women through the twenties and thirties. He coached the WASA of New York, and they won about every title, Olympic and National through about a 12 or 15-year period. A very fine journalist, and one of the best swimming writers, that we have ever had. He wrote for the New York Herald Tribune.


Now I am going to show you some coaches of a more modern era. This guy Ray Daughters was the athletic director and coach at Washington Athletic Club in Seattle. He was our National Chairman later on, and he was head Olympic coach for women in 1936 and 1948. 1948 was 50-years ago, and that is the first Olympics I personally ever witnessed.


This was the legendary Bob Kipputh. Many of you have heard of him even though you were not of his vintage. Behind him is the Payne Whitney Gym which was built in 1932, and which is still one of the best swimming complexes in the world. There are 2,300 individual seats, you can see every bit of every lane from any one of the seats.


Now I am showing you these men because when I came into swimming as a coach, these were the great stars of the coaching profession – Matt Mann from Michigan, who was a fantastic coach who came from England and had various jobs, and then settled down in Ann Arbor. He put Michigan on the map. His teams won many NCAA and national championships. He put a lot of people on the Olympic team and he became the head Olympic coach for men in 1952.


The other man, Michael Pepe, his Ohio State teams won 11 NCAA championships, which is still a record. He was basically a diving man, but he was smart enough to have as his first assistant, a very good swimming coach. So it was his diving/coaching ability and great recruiting talent why Ohio State rose to the top. He was a several-time Olympic Diving coach. These were the top people in 1948.


Here are those three guys together – they didn’t like each other, they didn’t like the picture. It was taken by a genius, and it had to be a genius to get the three of them to stand together like that. He recently died, his name was Dick Stedman. Some of you may have known him, he was a wonderful man. This picture I will treasure forever.


Here are some people that were swimming when I started coaching.  (he talks about swimmers from years 1948-1952).


U.S. A. success from 1960-1976. We had a phenomenal success period. Our Olympic medals were up around 60% or 65% of all medals in Olympic swimming. You just think about that. That means that the rest of the world got a third of the medals and we got two-thirds. That is domination. I would cheer if it would ever happen again. The 1948 men’s team they won every single first. But the war had just ended, and our country had not been ravaged. The Japanese and Germans were not allowed to be in the games. If you lose a war you can count on being out of the next games. The Japanese worked out 3-times a day in the 1940’s, and they got triple the mileage that the Americans did. When they came over to our country in 1949 – six men from Japan. They just swept the board and in the 1500 Furhashi was 1-minute , 43-seconds faster than the first American. If we have a distance swimming problem now, then think of what we had then.


The guy on the right was Alec Johnne from France, who was the first great post-war sprinter and 200 man. He also set a world record for 400-meter – 435. He was a great swimmer and very nice fellow.   Unfortunately he had trouble in the big    pressure meets against countries like Japan and the U.S. and never had a great Olympics.


On parallel success of 1960-1976, here are three reasons why it happened. Age group developed and started in this country. It was founded by various people – Beth Culpman, Carl Bower and a number of other people. It revolutionized the sport. The swimming population multiplied by 10 within five years. Starting in California, it spread all over the nation and later around the world. So we got the jump. What this new facet of swimming was to bring into a relatively small sport was literally thousands of fine athletes. And hundreds of good new coaches. We got a whole generation of very good coaches that came out of it. And an excellent group of supportive upper middle-class parents. Even though we’re coaches, don’t underestimate the good that these parents did for the sport of swimming. It was kind of an antiquated mess. And they got in and did a wonderful job of officiating. It improved 100% and other things improved. This was an injection that the sport needed, and we came alive. In 1956 we had our first age grouper to make the Olympic team – Sylvia Ruska.  She got a third place as a 14-year old.

By 1960, we took over world swimming, thanks to our age groupers and the brilliant young men and women that were coaching them.


The second factor. Interval training. Before this came in around 1950, what was the workout? Swim 20, kick 20, pull 20, do some dive sprints and go home. You might say that is pitiful, and it was pitiful. But nobody knew any different. One day I asked Buster Crab who was the 1932 Olympic 400-meter champion, and a dominant American distance swimmer for about 6 or 7 years, I said, “Buster, what was your secret in beating the other good swimmers of your era?” He said, “They trained a mile a day, I trained a mile and a half.” Think about that – he went about 2,400 yards a day. And you wonder why times have dropped. He was a terrific swimmer. If he had been swimming in the modern era, he would have been just as successful, but his mileage would have been up around 16,000 per day or whatever it would need.


The other thing was that gradually, this new form of training took over, even in the programs of the traditional. At that point, I was a young coach who didn’t know A from B. Along comes this new thing, and I jumped into it, and I said why not. I wasn’t locked into 20, 20, 20 plus sprints. I wasn’t locked into anything. All the young coaches started using it.


Coaches now had a real means of controlling sets. The number of repeat one controls. The distance or distances for each swim two controls and the speed of each repeat. So there you were with this marvelous control thing and the variety of training just went crazy. There were all sorts of kinds of workouts once you got away from that traditional system. Needless to say, there were incredible time drops. Every month, American swimming improved. American records, world records, were just knocked off regularly. It was a very exciting period. I was in a changing period. I think if I had to choose, I would have taken my period over yours.


Training Mileage. I told you about Buster – 2500 yards a day got him 448.4, world record, Olympic firsts, the works.  But 448.4, you say that is not very good, but it was great for then. You always have to compare people with people from their own period. You cannot compare Perkins with Crab. Because if Perkins had been swimming then, Crab might have beaten him, who knows. But it would have been a good contest. But mileage started going up. By 1949, no big mileage changes had been made in this country except for one or two programs. This changed rapidly. Ten years later many programs were at 10,000 a day – that is four times what Buster did. And then it just kept going up until by 1976, which is my cut-off agreement with Forbes Carlisle. We were up to 18,000. Well, if you are going 2500, and I am going 18,000, and I am able to survive it, guess who is going to win at the distance events?


Coaches competed against one another to see whose program could do the most. We were all talking back and forth – Forbes, George Haynes, Doc, other Australian coaches, myself. We were all saying, “Hey, we just heard that Forbes has got it up to 11,000, my God how does he do it, what is the breakdown?” I mean, we were just living this thing. We were dancing with excitement. And then you went back to your team and said the Australians are up to 11,000, and I think that we can handle 12,000, and we’ll whip them. So this was excitement. It was really back and forth with 8 or 10 coaches in the two countries. We didn’t include the European.


1956-1976 was the great aerobic period in American swimming. There can be no question about that. And then, science told us that perhaps it is not necessary to do all of that. And everything went down, but there were other factors. I am over-simplifying, probably to be dramatic. So those three factors – interval swimming, mileage, and age group population – they all hit about the same time over the same ten-year period, and we went, “whew,” just like that. I remember in Tokyo, I was the women’s coach. We had three girls in the 400, and they went 1, 2, and 3 because that is what they were there for. We had three girls in the 400 IM that could also go 1, 2, and 3. We had six people in the 400 in our little team of 10 or 12 people that were faster than anybody else in the world. Think about that, and what fun that was. Very often the 400-Imers in their workout would repeat better than the 400-freestylers. I would go to the 400-freestylers and say, “Well, we could always make a change. These people swim faster than you.”  That was a nice club to have.


Now I want to talk about some other odd things. Pace clocks – everybody accepts them. What was it like before the pace clock? It was bad. It was very bad. In the early 60’s, pace clocks were developed as a critical training aid. Not only were these large timepieces helpful to swimmers, but even more vital to the improvement of coaching. They allowed coaches to observe what people in the water were doing. As opposed to standing on the end of the pool and bellowing out 45, 46. Without the pace clocks, you lost your voice and you lost contact with the swimmer. When the pace clock came the swimmer could see for themselves what the sprints were and what the final time was. You didn’t have to talk about them, you could watch them. You could say, “Yes my dear you were very fast but your kick was miserable. Let’s do something about that.” That was a very important change, and that is why I didn’t mix it up with the others, because it absolutely revolutionized coaching.  You didn’t go home with a sore throat every night. For women coaches, the old system was a disaster, their voices just couldn’t take it.


Automatic judging and timing equipment. What a big change that was. Touch pads and score boards were developed in the 60s and continually improved ever since. Following the experimental McFritter machine, which was a kind of a homemade thing coming out of the back of somebody’s garage, but it worked. He had a graph and he cranked a wheel so that the graph intervals would spread out, and it was easier to see the calibrations and who won the race. After many embarrassments, where a lower place often received a faster time, FINA started to change and adjust times so that this would not occur as in the 1960 Larson/ Devitt 100-meter freestyle finish, which was a very celebrated case. In that particular case, the judges were tied. All six timers gave Larson the faster time. The chief referee said to the chief judge, “Henry you must call it.” They were both from Sweden. Henry, unfortunately, was five meters down the pool. How can you pick a finish when you are five meters down the course? So he probably said, “Enee, menee, mini, mo, Devitt.” Anyway Devitt won and Larson said to me, some years later, “I am glad I lost.” I said, “That is the most ridiculous statement that I ever heard.” He said, “No, I will always be remembered as the guy who was robbed. And Devitt will always be remembered as the guy who shouldn’t have won.” Actually they are very close friends today. And we all three laugh about it.


Then came the ballot system where time did count. It was one third of the judgement for each lane. The only problem was, you had to have an army of officials on the deck in every lane. You had to have three judges and three timers for every lane, plus a chief timer and a chief judge. This is where official dome reached its high point. This was because we had an army of people on the deck, and you had to train all these people.  That really wasn’t  a practical solution. And then came the developing of timing equipment in the water. The problem had been, how do you have accurate electric operation when you’re in moving water? They solved the problem, and today swimming is much fairer. It is also much better now with the automatic score boards as a point of information. It took me ten years to get over having joy every time I walked into a stadium that had the big board. I said that I am just in heaven and this is wonderful. I don’t have to ask anybody. I don’t have to time erase myself, I can just watch that board and enjoy the swimming. That has been an enormous change for all of us.


Because of the time constraints that we face on this talk, I am going to go on with the next slide. It is the most important slide that I have. The man standing on the left was the virtual czar or dictator of Australian swimming, William Verge Phillips. He is 85-years-old now and still a practicing lawyer and a very vigorous man and intensely interested in swimming. He had some ways about him that were sometimes difficult. The person on the right was a young butterfly boy that the Australians were developing. When I came to the games in ’48 as a spectator at my own expense, I saw a young coach running up and down the deck with a boy in the water who was continually swimming butterfly. All day long, every day, this scene would be re-enacted. I started wondering who was the swimmer and who the heavens is this madman.  The young guy was maybe 22 or 23, running up and down the deck following him. It turned out that the guy on the right was John Davies who got fourth in the event – the 200-Fly. He had a faster time than the bronze medalist, but there was no protest because that was the FINA system. Very unfair I might say. In 1952 he was Olympic champion. He went to Michigan, was American Champion NCAA – he is an Australian. Then he became a lawyer and started practicing.

He was the guy that was running along the deck following John Davies in London. That was the first time that I ever laid eyes on him.  That was fifty years ago.


Carlile: Singling out what one regards as major technical breakthroughs in competitive swimming, soon reveals a person’s background and the history of individual development in the sport. It most certainly  will reveal prejudices and blind spots.


For instance, soon after leaving school, I became a budding exercise physiologist because I was a swimming coach and the study of physiology, the functioning of the body, seemed allied to my interests. As well, it was as good a subject as any to help gain a university degree. So, for years, I saw things very much from the point of view of training, how to best develop endurance, and how to generate and sustain power to move the swimmer through the water.


Now I have come to realize, as I am sure many of you have, that there is much more to swimming fast than being well-trained and being “strong.” Incidentally time limits me to a discussion of freestyle, the quickest way to get from point A to point B.


There is quite a lot to say before I commit myself to embarking on making a list. In case you think I am procrastinating, I will go straight to the bottom line.


The fact is that not since 1976, has too much happened, judging by improvements in performance. There have in fact, in my view, been only a few really significant legitimate “break-throughs,” excluding drug use, in the whole history of competitive swimming .


Many good times in 1976 remain good times today when you exclude obvious cheats. Exclude almost certainly doped individuals from the top 15 of all time and in the majority of events, these lists are denuded, especially, of course, in most women’s events. In some, less than half of today’s top 15 list would remain.


It is interesting to look at performances 10 and 15 years ago and show that some on the legitimate list of that time would have gained medals at the 1998 World Championships in Perth.


In 1948, for two months, I coached most of the Australian swimming team in a miserably bleak Melbourne winter. There were no other 50m pools open during the winter in Australia. This was before we took off on our 4-day flight to London for the first post-war Olympics.


At the Melbourne Olympic Club, I searched for the data and drew graphs to indicate the progress of winning 400m Olympic times up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. On the eve of the London Games, we were then 12 years from 1936. The curves   showed that by 1936 there was a strong hint that times were flattening out, that there had been little progress from 1932 to 1936, but of course, the second World War completely stopped competitive swimming in many countries before the scheduled 1940 games for Helsinki.


The winning time for the men’s’ 100m in Berlin in 1936 was 57.4 sec. This was six tenths of a second faster than the 58.2 seconds which had won 4 years before in Los Angeles. But in 1924, Johnny Weissmuller won in 59 seconds flat, so there was not too much improvement to the 57.4, (1.6) in 1936. From Paris 1924 to Amsterdam in 1928, Weissmuller had improved his winning time by only 4/10 sec, to 58.6 sec. Other events told much the same story.


By 1936 it looked as though Swimming had gone just about as far as we could go.


What could we expect in 1948? Would the “flattening” be sustained in London?

The results in London at Wembley seemed to confirm that there had been little progress even in countries not much touched by the War, even three  years after hostilities ceased.


For instance, the 100m men’s freestyle was won in 1948 with 57.3, sec only a tenth of a second faster than in Berlin. Four years later Clark Scholes was a tenth of a second slower at Helsinki in 1952.


But then started  the speed revolution in swimming.


There was constant improvement in a linear fashion, all the way from 1948 through until after 1976. Through 7 Olympiads here was a constant, close to a 3% improvement every 4 years. The improvement was remarkably linear.  Look at the graph.


In 1976, the sky seemed to be the limit. The women were improving at a greater rate than the men, in fact, when the two straight line graphs were extrapolated, they intersected by the year 2000 when the girls could have been expected to catch the men, and the time for the 400m would be 3m 10 sec. Well, we would all like to see that!


It did not make sense, and such a time for male or female still does not make sense to me.  No, of course it has not happened.


We can never expect the girls to overtake the men. Can we believe this will ever happen, whilst girls with their muscular development (about 90% of the muscle of males) and in their build are female, and whilst the men are male?


A ball-park figure which has stood the test of time in many forms of athletic endeavor is that male performances are generally close to 10% in front of females.


After 1976, it happened again. The flattening phase of little had been entered and this time in earnest.


Twenty-two years on we still appear to be locked in a phase of minimal improvement.


At first it looked as though the Olympic boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980, accounted for the only small improvement from Montreal four years before because the USA and some other leading swimming nations did not compete.


However, by 1996, the flattening for both men and women has remained Perhaps it had started earlier, by 1972, because then , as we now know, the East German State doping program was well under way, but in full swing by 1976. This probably kept up the improvement line particularly for the women.


Granted most records have been broken since 1976, but the general improvement in swimming speed indicated by the Olympic winning times has certainly not continued to improve linearly since this time.


However, there is a now a greater bunching of swimmers times’ of those in Olympic finals. There are more good swimmers in the world.

The average times of finalists in international competition today are faster and must reflect that many countries have greatly improved their standard of living, giving more and better opportunities to train systematically. Nations have professionalized their best talent, exposing many to year-round training programs, and a great deal of back-up support Then there are modern communications, and communicators like Ernie Maglischo and Cecil Colwin, and much more travel, which lead to quite similar intensive programs being used the world over. Perhaps, this is a trouble, that there is probably not too much innovation.


So more swimmers are engaged in serious training and the promise of glittering prizes keep swimmers in there, striving hard. More with outstanding talent will appear, and with this is coupled changes in the rules, more pools with improved facilities and improvements in equipment.


You would certainly expect much greater progress than records being only slowly chipped away as outstanding swimmers appear periodically from the four quarters of the world.


This does not leave too much room for claiming significant technical breakthroughs.


Would it not be correct to conclude that not too many breakthroughs have happened?


Record breakers do not make the near quantum leaps forward like Mary T. Meagher, and Kieren Perkins. As a rule, we are seeing just fractions shaved off past records or even no improvement from games to games.


The sad thing is that those who finish first today are very often accused of being drug cheats. Sometimes, alas the accusations have been with good reason, and as many cynics point out, absence of proof of wrongdoing has not always been proof of the absence of chemical help.


The flattening of performances indicate to me that there have been no significant changes, no major breakthroughs since 1976. The major breakthroughs probably all came before 1976.


I read recently of the discovery of an athletic gene, which is claimed to give some individuals a head start in their athletic endeavors particularly in sustained endurance activities.


We have all known swimmers who train neither regularly, nor well by today’s standards, but they remain outstanding swimmers. They are just good. Coaches preen themselves and reap their rewards, but the fact is that the top performers today are usually outstanding athletes, notwithstanding where he or she comes from and despite their  training and other preparation gimmicks.


Perhaps a future break-through, and I am not altogether speaking with my tongue in my cheek, will be to look at the DNA of young hopefuls for that athletic gene to tell us whether the time and money spent in striving for top performance are likely in the long run to be worth the effort.

There have been many factors, minor advances, contributing to making swimmers faster. Some of them I have already mentioned, and a number have been well covered by Peter Daland.


The no hand touch in freestyle has made a definite contribution as have wavereducing lane lines and swim goggles. How history repeated itself there. I remember on trips to the USA in the late 1950s, my wife, Ursula, and I used to bring with us gift boxes of Protector brand, light simple industrial goggles with a sting bridge across the bridge of the nose. You could not buy them in the USA. After the appearance of all manner of esoteric designs many competitors today are opting for the simple, light eye pieces almost identical to the 1957 vintage. Certainly, I believe, the use of goggles has contributed to swimming performance. The swimmer can more easily get his bearings and prepare for the no-touch turns.  History certainly repeats itself.


I believe shaving down was first used at the Olympics, I have to say this , by Australians in 1956. I think it was a little more than a minor breakthrough in thinking about streamlining and lowering resistance. I particularly remember looking at hairy-chested American men and thinking, Ah..there’s a second or two lost in each 100m.


Underwater you could see bubbles collected on the hairs which must have reduced speed as surely as barnacles on a boat. Whatever the reasons, and it is impossible to carry out controlled scientific experiments, smooth shaved skins, coupled as a rule, with tall slender bodies, means faster swimming.


There have been improvements in swim suits. I don’t know how much difference is made by lightness and the surface of the suits, but I do know that then, the most we thought about was applying strength and training for super endurance, probably with more training miles than today, that it was not unusual to see baggy suits, even in top international competition. This must have cost a lot. At the first world championships in Belgrade in 1973, I recall that a number of American and Australian girls wore swim-suits, then they were nylon, which had wide gaps across the chests, which must have acted like parachutes. The nylon material was draped around the girls with distinct folds. It did not do much for streamlining.



Bill Boomer and Terry Laughlin have advanced the case for better streamlining in swimming position.


Speaking about strength. Very nearly in my view, qualifying as a major break-through, was the contribution of Coach Bob Kiphuth, whom my fellow presenter knew well at Yale University. The out-of-the-water flexibility and body weight strengthening exercises of Kiphuth, together with medicine ball work, and the fairly specific pulley weight strengthening were adopted by the Australians as early as 1942. There is no question in my mind that that this “core” general strengthening is essential for most swimmers for stabilizing muscle action.


Later came the heavy weight training, on which the jury, in my view, is still out.


Now we have the internet and dramatically improving communications. We are able to easily, by freezing video frames, analyze and understand more of just what the swimmer is doing in the water each split second. First it was with slow motion movies, and now with it is the ubiquitous video camera.


But why have swimmers not continued to get faster like a number of African distance runners? This we may well ask.


What have been the significant and major break-throughs which have made the most important contributions to swimming times. Which, if competitors did not apply to their swimming techniques, training and preparation, would condemn them to remain as also-rans, giving them today about as much chance of success in major competition, as the side-stroke swimmer would have today.


Let us consider four aspects of preparation, which most coaches regard today as contributing factors, that have taken some aspects of swimming beyond being subjective art; some along the trail of becoming a science.


First and foremost must be considered the technique of stroke production, the biomechanics of swimming. Then there is physiology, psychology, and nutrition.


Considering Nutrition.

Advances in nutrition science and propagation of that knowledge and raising of living standards, but alas not in all parts of the world has undoubtedly contributed greatly to general health and well-being. Specifically, I do not believe there is any one particular food or vitamin supplementation of the hundreds, maybe on the market, which has delivered a major break-through taking us beyond the gospel of good nutrition—a wide variety of foods as close as possible to their natural state. Perhaps the discovery of vitamins at the beginning of the 20th century as essential food elements was a major break-through.



This, I find difficult to make a judgement about. Suffice to say that whenever I made a possible psychological explanation for an event, my old professor invariably rolled his eyes.  I know   I will pick an argument if I call psychology an inexact science. But I must take a rain check on mentioning any one  importantbreak-through. However, this is not to say that systematic attention to psychological parameters pioneered by Rushall with the Canadians 20 years ago will not assume more importance in the future.


Freestyle stroking, and the science of biomechanics.


An exhaustive history of swimming is found in the classic book Swimming by Ralph Thomas. This was first published in 1868, and in its final edition, appeared in 1904 before the name “Crawl Stroke” had penetrated the consciousness of the author who critically discussed thousands of books and articles on swimming. Index entries for “Crawl Stroke” or “Double Overarm” do not appear in the extensive index. Thomas lived in the latter days 19th century when sidestroke was king, continuing as the racing stroke right through to the first years of the 20th century.


Thomas looked critically at just about all that had ever been written about swimming. He explores the many blind allies and cherished beliefs being repeatedly critical of what he calls the “scissor and paste” jobs where authors have written their books and articles, plagiarizing, and repeating again and again what the passing of time has later exposed as gross errors.


All right, what have been the major technical (today we would perhaps call them biomechanical) breakthroughs? Nothing has come like a bolt from the blue. Changes have evolved from trial and error, a matter of what worked. The break-throughs took time. The overarm stroke made fitful appearances in London, but for decades, was not successful as a racing stroke.


In competitive swimming, since 1837 in London, there was a gradual diminishing of the resistive retarding action of the knees drawn-up breaststroke. With the swimmer on the side, there was a more flowing, even, and continuous application of propulsive movement, and the flattening of the body into a more horizontal position.


Despite the short sprints swimming by John Trudgen in 1873, and by others before him, the breaststroke-derived sidestroke with a wide “scissor kick,” made in several variations, was developed and successfully used for racing by the English through the 1880s and into the early 1900s.


The huge leap forward of the double-overarm, with a narrowed sideways kick, was made by Australian F.C.V Freddy Lane. It was a major break-through when he won the NSW mile championship in 1899 swimming, with the double overarm all the way.


Soon this was followed in Sydney by 12-year-old Alick Wickham (look at that boy crawling), and Dick Cavill who mastered the crawl stroke for the 100 yards, where his legs thrashed vigorously in the vertical plane.


James “Doc” Counsilman deserves a high place of honor for his analysis of the swimming action, and his application of physical laws, which resulted in the simple concept of elbows up in applying propulsive force almost directly backwards, press with the arms and forearm. It was well-enunciated in his famous landmark book, The Science of Swimming.



Here I should mention Professor Thomas Kirk Cureton of Springfield and later the University of Illinois, whose researches into many aspects of swimming during the 1930s and 40s were prodigious.


Australian Andrew “Boy” Charlton, at the age of 16, was the 1500m winner at Paris in 1924. He trained for less than 6 months of the year, and even then, not very much more than 800 m a day.


The Japanese swimmers of the 1930s, who dominated the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, made a major break-through when they recognized that hard training resulted in world record performances. Tetsuo Hamuro, winner of the 200m breaststroke in 1936, told me that the most important reason for Japanese outstanding successes in the 1930s was that they trained very much harder than the rest of the swimming world, “much harder than the Japanese swimmers train today.” He told Ursula and me this in 1983. Increased training, more swimming. I believe represents a significant break-through.


We are seeing today, in my view, a freestyle break-through in the techniques of a number of today’s tall, fairly slender individuals. The males in particular have arm strokes particularly long in front, swim with a fairly high arm tempo, and use their hands and arms to catch the water early in the “pull.” They swim with distinct shoulder rotation and rotate the body around the central axis. The head is held well down in the water, looking towards the bottom of the pool, so their bodies are generally very nearly horizontal in a streamlined position.


With the stroking tempos of around 40 strokes per minute the leg kicks, with flexible ankles, are relatively shallow and move in a continuous action or with a small broken tempo, but always with the arms dominating the stroke. Analysis by Dr. Brent Rushall, Swimming Science Journal, on the internet, indicates that most of the “fast-kicking” top male and female swimmers today use a FOUR beat kick timing.  This may surprise you.


So this major breakthrough has been with better streamlining, a number of factors combining, coupled with outstanding fitness from year-round training and high training distances, with effective “backward” application of arm and forearm power.


Finally, we come to the major break-through of interval training.


The thought of interval training took place in Australia in the early 1950s. This took place in a systematic way, following the early lead of European runners, in particular, by the Germans. I believe, in swimming, we were the first to systematically use interval short rest repeats at around race-pace with short rests which developed endurance. Thirty or more 50’s on the 45 seconds or on the minute at fast speed became a core item of training in most Australian squads from the early 1950s. This training, whether we recognized it or not, was well in accord with a philosophy of Speed Through Endurance developed by short rest repeats.


With interval training, in fact in the late 1940s, came the use   of the pace clock in Sydney. So from 1948 to 1976, although there were probably few major breakthroughs, I believe that in high-mileage programs some athletes have shown a remarkable degree of adaptation capacity for hard training. And then we know now that race performance, can be significantly enhanced by chemical means.


All the factors mentioned, and I am sure there are others, have contributed to some extent to reaching where we are today. I think many factors have chimed in and played a part in keeping improvement progressing in this linear way—until 1976, but after then there has been nothing significantly new which has resulted. This is not to say that systematic attention to team dynamics pioneered by Rushall with the Canadians 20 years ago will not assume more importance in the future improved performances.


The  Four Major Breakthroughs


The  major breakthroughs I believe have been:


  1. For over 150 years the improvements in stream—lining   in swimming techniques.
  1. Increased training
  2. Counsilman’s stroke-force analysis, resulting in his “elbows up” philosophy. However, Doc’s biomechanical conclusions were not always
  3. The widespread application of interval


Now, we wait for the next major break-through.

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