The history of open water swimming is somewhat analogous to the history of the universe.
As historian David Christian explains, “The general tendency of the universe is to go from order and structure to a lack of order and a lack of structure. But there is a staggering complexity to the universe.”
With the open water swimming community exploding in size and in complexity, the similarities are imaginable.
The changes are easy to see from the days of Lynne Cox swimming across the Bering Strait in 1987 to contemporary ice swimmers who are regularly challenging themselves across all the continents, the extreme swimming community is growing in size, number of events, and difficulty of the attempts. From the days of a handful of established professional marathon swims in Canada, Egypt and India, to the contemporary times where hundreds of swims over 10 km are held, is another example.
From the first circumnavigation of Manhattan Island in 1915 to a number of quiet swims, hundreds of swimmers vying for positions in the annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and dozens of swims in New York organized by the NYC Swim, growth and complexity is increasing like the universe.
Christian, who is working with Bill Gates, adds that there are threshold moments when distinct changes occur in the universe. Heat, energy, diversity and gravity can lead to increased complexity and further changes. And water has a special place in creating complexity. “In gases, atoms move past each other too quickly. In solids, the atoms are fixed. But in liquids, the atoms can intermingle and mix just right.”
That intermingling and mixing sound familiar. When mankind meets water, the allure of adventure mixes just right with the challenge. With the concurrence of the ubiquitous nature of Internet and mobile communications, the knowledge of swims around the world has become easy. While the crews of some channel swimmers used carrier pigeons to transmit their progress to the outside world, now swimmers who do a channel swim provide near real-time communications of their progress and the conditions via Internet, GPS monitoring, texts, and tweets. This instantaneous nature of communications has inspired other swimmers around the world to equate and exceed the feats of others. As the knowledge of unprecedented swims is shared, the bar for all swimmers is concurrently raised as dreams get bigger.
As the universe developed and ages, mankind presents a unique change to the timeline of history. Unlike flora or fauna, insects or carnivores, humans are able to verbalize, memorize and analyze cumulative knowledge. Throughout the history of open water swimming, swimmers learned and continued to accumulate knowledge, adding to the community’s collective memory. If someone can do a one-way crossing, someone will start to think about a two-way crossing. If someone can swim a 10 km swim in 2 hours, someone will start thinking about breaking 2 hours. If someone can swim a mile in 5°C, someone else will aim to exceed that distance. If someone can swim to an island, someone will think about swimming back to the island.
Generations after generations become increasingly wiser as experience is garnered and history rolls on. With the incorporation of the written word, the collective knowledge of the open water swimming community grew fast, but with the existence of the Internet, the growth and excitement has grown a lightning speed. From the spoken word to telegrams to faxes to email to near real-time GPS monitoring to texts, tweets, and real-time video streaming, the demand for more and more information is leading to greater and greater excitement about the sport and the camaraderie between swimmers of different cultures, native tongues, ages, abilities and backgrounds.
Each venue provides a variety of conditions and each new open water swimming goal ramps up new knowledge about a body of water.
Learning as they go.
So viewed from this perspective, what is a short history of the open water swimming world?
Ancient Rome: Open water swimming races are held in the Tiber River.
36 BC: Japanese organize open water swimming races.
Middle Ages: Swimming with armor is one of seven agilities required of knights.
1844: Native Americans, swimming freestyle, upset the favored British who used breaststroke in well-publicized swim races in London.
1872: Captain Matthew Webb gets inspired by JB Johnston who attempted to swim across the English Channel.
1875: Captain Webb swims the English Channel, giving notoriety to marathon swimming. No other person successfully swims the English Channel for 31 more years.
1896: Athens Olympics: Four open water swimming races are held in the Bay of Zea (100, 500 and 1200 meters and a race for Greek sailors) in 55ºF water and very heavy surf.
1900 Paris Olympics: Five downstream swim races are held in the Seine River, including a 4 km freestyle race won in under an hour.
1908: First Boston Light Swim occurs in Boston Harbor in Massachusetts, USA.
1015: First circumnavigation of Manhattan Island in New York City, USA.
1916: Annual La Jolla Roughwater Swim starts in San Diego, California, USA.
1926: Gertrude Ederle becomes the first women to swim across the English Channel.
1927: George Young wins US$50,000 in a Catalina Channel race, called the Wrigley Ocean Marathon. Ed Keating wins a 24-mile Lake George Swimming Marathon.
1950: The Daily Mail race across the English Channel begins, and the first known attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida by a quartet of Cuban swimmers is conducted.
1954: The professional marathon race Around-the-Island begins in Atlantic City begins. Pro swims in Canada, Atlantic City and the Great Lakes attract swimmers from the world.
1960: The Jim Moran Lake Michigan swims begin and culminate in the 60-mile race between Abou-Heif and Ted Erikson in 1963.
1973; 154 people participate in the annual Midmar Mile in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa which later grows to the largest swim in the world in the 1990s.
1974: John Kinsella, Olympic gold and silver medalist, wins the first of several World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation circuit races. Paul Asmuth continues the American domination of professional marathon swimming throughout the 1980s.
1978: Penny Dean shatters one-way English Channel world record by over 1 hour.
1987: Lynne Cox swims across the Bering Strait in the Arctic Ocean. She later swims in Antarctica.
1991: The global professional marathon swimming series is taken over by FINA. Swimmers from European nations – Germany, Italy, and Spain – swin many world championships.
2000: The International Olympic Committee adds triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
2005: The International Olympic Committee proposes a 10 km marathon swimming race to the 2008: Beijing Olympic Games marathon swim takes place in a rowing basin in front of 35,000 fans.
2010: The Sun Moon Lake lnternational Swimming Carnival reaches over 25,000 participants.
2011: International Ice Swimming Association is formed by Ram Barkai, kicking off a global race to swim Ice Miles.
2012: First person, Stephen Redmond of Ireland, becomes the first person to successfully complete the Oceans Seven.
2012: The Olympic 10 km Marathon Swim takes place before a global television and Internet audience in the Serpentine.
Second photo shows Professor Morrie Chiang of the Sun Moon Lake International Swimming Carnival and Yutaka Shinozaki of the Japan International Open Water Swimming Association.
Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association