The Evolution of the Modern Crawl Stroke by Forbes Carlile (2001)


This presentation revolves mainly around a collection of videos showing, in more or less chronological order, the techniques of champion freestyle swimmers. It spans a period of more than 100 years, up to the 2001 world Championships at Fukuoka that featured the phenomenal swimming of Thorpe, van den Hoogenband, De Bruijn, and Hackett.


The evolution towards the crawl stroke, the pinnacle of racing styles, was not one of rapid transition from its humble beginnings. Progress came neither quickly or easily.


Training methods, rules, equipment, facilities, and hugely increasing worldwide participation in the sport have all changed in ways favoring faster competitive performances. However, there seems little doubt that today’s techniques of swimming, innovations that have come slowly, have had considerable impact. They have made technique, once distances and effort in training increased to the level of about 20 years ago, the greatest contributors to moving fast through the water. In swimming techniques, there have been considerable improvements whilst I believe other influencing factors have remained relatively stable.


Competitions, of course—and more recently glittering prizes, have been the stimuli and crucible for progress. From the time the first recorded organized races held in London in 1837, each generation can be said to have stood on the shoulders of swimmers and coaches who have gone before them. However, traditional ways and uncritical following of some false trails have often delayed progress.


Progress came as swimmers in England moved from the first competitive stroke, the breaststroke, to breaststroke swum on the side, the sidestroke. This was followed by one-arm-over, single-arm sidestroke. The Championship of England was first won with this form of sidestroke in 1859 and it continued to be used for another 40 years in major competitions, with the leg action developing into a narrow scissors kick.


A more formidable hurdle was the challenge to sustain the double overarm for more than a short distance The so-called “Trudgen” stroke had been introduced to Londoners by John Trudgen in 1873 with the knees drawn-up to produce a horizontal breaststroke kick. But such a double overarm was no easy stroke for dyed in the wool sidestrokers to master. Australia became the testing ground for further developments.


At the turn of the 20th century came the challenge of the overarm crawl stroke with vertical kicking, a skill acquired at first by only by a handful of Australians who were the forerunners of this “new style” that originated in the South Seas. Dick Cavill was first to demonstrate this vigorous style of swimming in the U.K. in 1902.


The story of the early evolution of swimming techniques and subsequent developments of the modern crawl, the latter which will mainly concern us today, because of time limitations with the video that follows, will be published as an addendum in ASCA’s Year 2001 Clinic proceedings.


How Should We Assess Good Crawl Stroke Technique?

This is clearly an important consideration.

As well as using the stopwatch, it is necessary for coaches to decide on justifiable criteria whereby the effectiveness of crawl techniques may be judged and improvements in swimming techniques taught.  Obviously, such judgements are best reached on the basis of reliable knowledge gained from studying swimmers underwater, normally with sequential pictures, and optimally, by using frame-by-frame analysis. Our assessments can only be made with some validity after consideration of biomechanical, hydrodynamic and other insights gained over the years.


It is suggested that the well-articulated criteria of scientists Rushall, Sprigings, Cappaert, and King, should be applied. Swimmer analyses and an itemisation of these criteria are to be found in Swimming Science Journal web site of Dr Brent Rushall, a professor at the San Diego State University at


Two major factors in the technique of speed swimming are addressed, streamlining and the most effective application of muscular power. From observations of champion performers in their gold medal races, with permission, I quote from the above authors’ paper. The observations are clearly applicable not only for today’s record breakers but also to all crawl stroke swimmers, past and present.


Criteria of Rushall et al. for Effective Crawl Stroke Technique

“All subjects [observed] appear to be able to improve streamlining. The magnitude of those possibilities is greater in some than in others. Beneficial changes could be derived from any or all of the following.

  1. Keeping the body horizontal and not raising the shoulders in concert with arm entries. The body should only be rotated on a horizontal, longitudinal axis.
  2. Keeping the head down, looking at the bottom and then to the side of the pool when breathing, so that rotation on a horizontal, longitudinal axis is achieved. It is detrimental to streamlining to look forward and/or to raise the head at any time, particularly when breathing.
  3. Keeping the legs and kick within the body shadow so that form resistance is minimized. The only time the legs should emerge from the position of maximum streamline is when detrimental effects are more than offset by arm-propulsion gains.
  4. Reducing downward pressure after the arms enter the water and achieving a horizontal pull component earlier. Bending at the elbow, immediately after entry, would assist in faster directional force change. If this could be achieved, there is every likelihood that streamlining will be better
  5. Rotating the hips and shoulders together to the same degree in a streamlined position. This will reduce form resistance.
  6. Allowing the kick to rotate on a longitudinal axis in concert with hip rotation. A concentration on vertical kicking increases form resistance whereas rotation has the potential to decrease it without any loss in propulsion, Aligning the upper arm of the pull and recovery with the line of the shoulders to increase the musculature used to generate force as well as maintain the integrity of the shoulder joint. An emphasis on, or tolerance of, internal rotator muscle group activity will eventually cause problems. This proposal will introduce a greater role for the external rotator muscles during the pull.
  7. Maintaining streamlined feet when kicking so that drag is not created. However, it must be realized that a “braking” action may be a corrective movement for some other error.”
  8. After studying swimmers of the past, it can be seen that as crawl stroke techniques have improved as judged by the above criteria, times have been reduced.


On the basis of improvements in technique that many swimmers could still make, there is reason to believe there is still room for performance gains through better streamlining and propulsive force application.


You may judge from what you see in this video of competitors from the past.



Standing by the pool with a young coach, as I was musing about the historical development of the crawl stroke, he remarked — “I thought we always swam like this”. Of course, that is not so.


We have learned a lot about crawl stroke technique in recent years. Nobody could swim like the famous Johnny Weissmuller and perhaps, I often wonder, even as did Mark Spitz, Dawn Fraser, or Shane Gould, and be world champions today. There have been important technical changes.


Let’s step back in time and trace how thinking on swimming evolved and consider what were the major changes.


Although breaststroke was the first stroke swum competitively, at least in formal races with governing rules, there is clear evidence from ancient mosaics and coins that in antiquity (2-3,000 BC), swimmers used what has been called the “human stroke”, with a vertical, alternate upwards and downward kicking of the legs. The head was held high and arms pulled back alternately with an arm stroke similar to a young child’s “dog paddle” of today. There is at least one ancient coin that depicts a hand–over-hand over-arm action used by ancient Assyrians.


But those who “bathed” in lakes and rivers and in London’s growing number of artificial pools in the 1830s swam breaststroke. They raced with breaststroke and Matthew Webb in 1875, the first to conquer the English Channel, not surprisingly did so swimming breaststroke.



Despite the popularity of the “frog stroke” in other parts of the world, we know that in South America, the South Seas, and also in the Hawaiian Islands, where it was necessary to rapidly accelerate to crest the wave to body surf, a vigorous over-arm stroke with legs thrashing vertically was used.


From a practical viewpoint, in order to survive drowning, breaststroke was used by soldiers in ancient times to keep themselves afloat We know that in the Japanese military, a form of this stroke was adopted to successfully cross rivers whilst weighed down with weapons and armor. Until comparatively recent years in a number of European countries, traditionally the first stroke learned was breaststroke—in Holland known as the “School stroke”. Forty years ago, whilst coaching in Holland, my wife Ursula and I argued continually with the Dutch Swimming Federation advocating that the first stroke taught should be the crawl stroke.


Breaststroke, the stroke that represented “swimming” in England, and on the Continent was swum with the so-called frog kick. Actually the kicking action of the frog does not closely approximate the human kick because a frog pushes backwards and downwards with its webbed feet.


As a racing stroke, the flat-in-the-water breaststroke gave way to the faster English sidestroke with the body on one side. After drawing both knees up towards the body, the legs made an outward kick followed by their drawing together in a wedge-squeeze. The action was said, “to look like a man running with all the limbs working independently” (Thomas, 1904.)


At first, the English sidestroke was virtually breaststroke swum on the side but soon there were further developments and a North of England version was widely adopted. It featured a narrowed leg action, there being considerably less drawing up of the knees before straightened legs were brought together. In 1855 in London, an Australian “Professor” C. W. Wallis demonstrated a “new” sidestroke he had seen the aborigines using as they glided through the water in the Lane Cove River at Fig Tree near Sydney. The spot is only a few miles from our home at Ryde, and we pass it most days. The new style was the singlearm-over sidestroke.


Wallis’s pupil, Fred Beckwith, won the 1859 Championship of England and for 46 years the long-distance championship of England was won with the single-arm-over recovery.

As Cecil Colwin has pointed out (Swimming Dynamics, 1998, p. 97), twice there had been opportunities for the British to see and adopt the double over-arm and make a giant leap forward in competitive swimming. The first was in 1844 when two North American Indians, Flying Gull and Tobacco, raced in London but were easily beaten with their “totally un-European strokes where the water was lashed violently with arms like the sails of a windmill as the feet beat downward with force”. Then later, in 1873 local swimmers did not learn from John Trudgen’s appearance in London.


In August of 1873 Trudgen, an Englishman who had lived abroad, told how he had learned his stroke from the South American natives. He brought both arms over the water in their recovery and won races over short distances. Swimming flat on his chest with his head carried high, Trudgen maintained a horizontal breaststroke kick. Competitive swimmers of the day remained unconvinced that the ungainly Trudgen way represented any advance and stuck to graceful single-arm-over sidestroke. John Jarvis from Lancashire won the distance event (the 1000m FS) at the 1900 Paris Olympics, still using the North of England single-arm-over sidestroke, with the knees drawn up minimally before his legs were “swished” together with a horizontal “scissoring” action. That “the Northern “ style was a successful advance on the earlier English sidestroke was clear.


There is no record of successful use of the Trudgen-style over-arm in competitive swimming until after 1889 when the first of regular Australian championships were held. Gradually, over short distances, more double-over-arm competitors were pitting themselves against the sidestrokers of the day that included several members of the Cavill family of swimmers who had emigrated from England. A Peter Murphy swam with both arms recovering over the water for the complete distance in the 1896 Australasian 880 yards championship at the Cockatoo Dock in Sydney. This attracted much comment. In “The Referee”, a Sydney sporting newspaper of the day, their swimming expert wrote, “Murphy’s feat was without parallel”, reckoning it to be an almost superhuman performance. But the swimmer finished third.


Around the many bays of Sydney Harbor a few youngsters, including the elf-like F. C. V “Freddy” Lane, were practicing with this fatiguing stroke now widely known as the over-arm—with the action of drawing up the knees abandoned for the more streamlined, sweeping together of straightened legs. Both arms recovered over the water with a horizontal sweeping action of straightened legs and this became the stroke of choice for Australian competitors and the narrowed scissors kick persisted for another 30 years in a stroke wrongly called the “Trudgen.” In 1965, Freddy Lane told me he always knew his stroke as the “Double Over-arm”. In 1899, Freddy Lane performed the unprecedented feat of swimming the complete distance over-arm, narrow scissor kick when he won the NSW Championship for the mile at Wagga Wagga on the Murrumbidgee River.


The story of how the vertical kicking action of the legs was re-discovered, being called in Australia the crawl stroke, and how it was introduced to the modern world by Dick Cavill, has been told and retold many times; how 10-year- old South Sea islander Alick Wickham in a boy’s handicap race at the Bronte ocean pool in 1898 had startled the Sydney swimming fraternity with his speed; and how Dick Cavill practiced the new stroke in his family’s floating baths in Sydney Cove and in 1902 amazed the British in Manchester with his new “splash” stroke. It was then clear to some that this the more fluent crawl stroke, demonstrated to be fastest for short distances, would come to be the stroke of the future.


Cecil Healy, Olympic 100m silver medallist (1912), and a teacher and writer, used and taught a heavily accented 2-beat crawl where the knees were well bent before making two heavy downward kicks from the knees at each arm entry. This stroke was called the Australian Crawl and was used by a number of Australian competitors. These included Fanny Durack, the winner of the first Olympic swimming event for women, at the Stockholm Games in 1912. Also from Australia, Mina Wylie finished second, swimming with the Australian Crawl stroke. Healy taught regular breathing with the crawl, which was a step forward from earlier crawl swimmers who only intermittently lifted their heads to snatch a breath.


However, with the success of the Americans Daniels and Kahanamoku, with their continuous independent kicking actions, the Australian Crawl became obsolete. Nevertheless the scissors kick in the modified Trudgen stroke remained a successful technique for many years, especially in distance swimming. This was the stroke of Australian trailblazers, Barney Kieren and Frank Beaurepaire. When Andrew “Boy” Charlton at 16 became famous in Australia by winning the 1500m at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, he too used a scissors kick. Later he and others added vertical crawl kicks to the scissors action in what was erroneously called the “Trudgen” crawl, which Fred Lane more accurately called the double over-arm.


Early in the 20th century, a Sydney boy, Barney Kieren, was credited with world records at all distances from 200m to the mile in the pre-FINA days, before his untimely death at 19 in 1905 after an operation for appendicitis. He used the double over-arm with the scissors kick like the original Freddy Lane leg action. Even after the introduction of the crawl stroke in the early 1900s, Frank Beaurepaire won Olympic medals between 1908 and 1924 with a crawl kick later incorporated into his scissors/trudgen action.


It was not until 1948 at the London Olympic Games that John Marshall, an Australian who later trained under Bob Kiphuth at the Yale University, was the first Australian Olympic medallist to swim with a continuous leg action without any scissors action.

When Syd Cavill arrived in America from Australia via the Solomon Islands in the South Seas as a swimming instructor at the San Francisco Olympic Club, he preached that any retarding, stop-and-start, knees-drawn-up action should be eliminated from the stroke even to the extent of not using the legs at all. However, Americans were attempting to master the Australian 2-beat crawl on the East coast of the USA and at the New York Athletic Club in trying to copy the Australian Crawl the independent, continuous “flutter” kicking of the legs was developed, to be called the American Crawl.


Charles Daniels in 1905 was the first famous American swimmer. He became the world record holder for the 100m and won the sprint at the London Olympics in 1908 with an independent continuous flutter kick that was used by famous Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku who won the Olympic 100m events in 1912 and again in 1920. Kahanamoku claimed the stroke was natural to Polynesians.  He said he had never been taught. After Daniels and Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller (1924 and 1928 100m Olympic winner) burst on to the swimming scene, together with a succession of outstanding sprinters from a number of countries who used independent, regular 6 beat, and even 8-beat kicking actions


It is remarkable that for the Olympic freestyle events, especially for the 100m, with the men from 1928 to 1952, and women from 1932 to 1952, for 20 years the winning times only improved minimally, by not much over a second. Doubtless, there were other factors involved but I believe that traditional ideas on technique were holding back the sport and the time was right for rethinking basic concepts.


The Japanese swimmers of the 1930’s were outstandingly successful by dint of, for the times, very hard training and by using a crawl technique characterized by lowering the head (as distinct from the Weissmuller model) and with arm and shoulder muscles better mobilized in the stroke with significant body roll. These innovations were significant steps forward.


In the 1930’s the concept of timing legs with the arms in a definite 1-2-3-4-5-6 rhythm, became popular with most coaches. Also, in the 1930s and persisting through into the 1950s, many leading coaches in the USA and in Australia were teaching that the arms should be kept straight in the pull on the specious biomechanical, “scientific” grounds that using the arm as a long lever throughout the pull was more effective in propulsion than a bent arm. That was wrong, as the Australians well demonstrated in 1956.


In 1949, Japanese distance swimmers led by Shiro Hashizume and Hironoshin Furuhasi (later a long-time the President of Japanese Swimming) burst onto the distance swimming scene with radical new “drag” leg kick. These leg actions with a fast arm rating broke right away from the regular strong 6-beats which had previously been the trademark of Japanese swimmers and top American swimmers of the time.


The high tempo, arm-dominated strokes of the Japanese, used their legs mainly it seemed as “balancers” in reaction to non-forward-propelling forces produced in a stroke. This trend was soon seen in many top distance swimmers from several countries. The “seal of approval” had been given. At the Melbourne Olympic Games Dual Olympic Champion in 1956 Murray Rose varied his kicking action between a 2-beat and a 4-beat whilst American George Breen swam to a world 1500m record with a trailing 2-beat crossover kick.


The theory of pulling with straight arms in crawl and backstroke had clearly been abandoned by the Australians by the mid 1950s when multiple world holders Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, Jon Henricks, and Lorraine Crapp swept the freestyle events      at the Melbourne Olympic Games in record times.


To me and others, the styles of the Japanese in the early 1950s were straws in the wind, suggesting that arm dominated strokes with 2-beat, 4-beat, cross-over, and even “drag” kicks might well be the direction technical changes should take for distance swimming. Certainly the heavy 6-beat kick, timed so that the arm action co-coordinated with it had been holding back Australian progress in the 1930s and was to be avoided. It became clear that the legs should not dominate the timing of the stroke but should “dance attendance on the arms” as Frank Beaurepaire had perceptively observed in an article written in 1915.


In the 1960s and 1970s a number of top swimmers, even Australian Michael Wenden, a sprinter who won both the 100m and 200m Olympic titles in 1968 with the 100m world record to his credit, swam with a 2-beat cross-over. Americans Patty Caretto, then Shirley Babashoff, outstanding female swimmers of the era, and also distance swimmers Brad Cooper, Graham Windeatt (Australia), Roy Saari, John Kinsella, Mike Burton, Tim Shaw (all American) and Vladamir Salnikov (USSR), and a number of others, were cross-over swimmers who used two or four beats to a full arm cycle, with sometimes a “six beat” kick thrown in when swimming speed was to increase.


It is now appreciated that crossover kicks in the leg action acted as compensating reactions for sideways, misapplied forces tending to throw the body out of alignment. Such compensating leg actions are rarely seen in today’s top crawl swimmers.


Although I may be appearing to be placing too much emphasis on the leg action I assert that the nature of the kick can tell us a lot about the application of propulsive power. Erroneous ideas may have been held advocating forcible use of the legs, that they should beat hard with the aim of contributing significantly to propulsion. This I believe helped hold back swimming progress for many years with kick-dominated strokes. Certainly this was so in Australia where the Australian 100m record remained at a modest 60.6 seconds until the mid-1940s.  Australian swimming was in the doldrums through the 1930s and 1940s as it concentrated on kicking.


In the late 1960s, Karen Moras, developed from a 6–year- old in my wife Ursula’s squad at Ryde, made just two kicks with no crossover and with streamlined feet. We made no attempt to have her increase her kicking rate as she went on to make world records for the 400m and 800m. Then followed Shane Gould, who joined our squad at Ryde at 12 swimming with a “six beat” leg action. We immediately brought Shane back to a 2-beat, and this was how she swam every stroke of the 100m when she equaled and later broke Dawn Fraser’s long-standing world record. She finally claimed world marks at all five freestyle world record distances and the 200m Individual Medley. The two-beat seemed to prove successful with Shane so when Jenny Turrall from our “Tadpole” squad, four years after she could first swim 200m, followed on just as Shane was dropping out, to my mind there was no question that Jenny’s natural 2-beat should be encouraged. This seemed to be confirmed by her winning the second FINA World Championship at the 800m in 1975 and breaking and re-breaking world records over the 800m and 1500m distances.


That the 2 beat stroke was very suitable for distance swimmers, especially for women, would seem to have been confirmed by the great Janet Evans and many other female distance swimmers who came after Ryde’s “big three “ of the 1970s, American Brooke Bennett and others, today have cemented the view with me that the 2 or 4- beat in the long run will most likely prove to be the most effective leg action for female distance swimmers. This was borne out by the results of by far the fastest 1500m race in depth of all time at Fukuoka in 2001. Here I could see only one six -beat swimmer—Amanda Pascoe of Australia who recorded the credible time of 16m16.80 for fourth place which I would be the fastest ever for a 6-beater. The correctness of my contention regarding the suitability of the 2-beat for women’s distance swimming, time will or will not confirm. However with male swimmers the assent of multi -record holder, Ian Thorpe with his regular 6-beat and extreme joint flexibility must set us thinking. Will top swimmers of the future be using strong continuous leg kicks?

There can be no argument as it has become very evident, for males or females for sprint or middle distance swimming that it is an advantage to be tall.


Rushall, Sprigings, Cappaert, and King have set out eight principles, itemized above for efficient crawl stroke swimming.


Analyses, as a result of underwater studies, now more readily available than in the past, strongly support these conclusions in so far as they can be seen to be very largely the attributes of most outstanding crawl stroke swimmers of today.


Dr James “Doc” Counsilman of Indiana, probably the most influential swimming coach ever with his scientific description of swimming techniques, now inevitably considered in error with some of his theories, was certainly not wrong when he stressed that the elbows should be “kept up” throughout most of the of the push back of the hand and forearm in the “catch” phase of the arm-stroke.


In the 1970’s, Counsilman wrote and spoke extensively about the common fault of “dropped elbows.” This simple concept of high elbows was much easier said than done. Only gradually has the message got through to coaches and swimmers. As the combination of forearm and hand assumed more perpendicular positions throughout the pull, performances once again began to improve rapidly.


Training and a number of other factors have played a part in the progress we have seen. However, there can be little doubt that coupled with maintaining a horizontal streamlined position in the water that another, most important factor has been the full mobilization of the muscles of the back, chest, and the shoulder complex to produce adduction of the upper arm as the source of propulsive force. The effectiveness of those muscles has been made possible with shoulder rotation around the central axis of the body and medial rotation of the upper arm. Adducting and stabilizing muscles, most attached to the spinal column, are said to provide “core strength”. These muscles work most effectively only after large amounts of judicious practice. Their contractions, pulling on the humerus, need to be trained over years to bring about optimum recruitment of the of muscle fibres to effect the strongest and most efficient pull using the propelling surface of the hands and forearms and at times, the upper arms. The intent of the modern action is that it is made to produce direct forward motion, without contrived s-shaped or other divergent lateral or downward      actions.


In Summary:

In the future, performances that are seemingly unattainable now may be reached when coaches learn to more effectively teach the following:

  1. The application of the principles of streamlining.
  2. The use of the appropriate movements, by constant repetition facilitating the most effective development of upper arm adduction as the source of propulsive force.
  • Arm domination of the timing of the crawl stroke action.

All this is to be incorporated in individuals possessing unusual physical and mental aptitudes.




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