Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku

Since the beginning of the 19th century, swimming was already established as a popular competitive sport in England. But British athletes generally relied on the sedate breaststroke for travelling in the water, and were rather shocked at the exhibition staged by a group of North American Indians that had been invited to London by the Swimming Society in England, at 1844.

One observer found their swimming "totally un-European," declaring that the Indians "thrashed the water violently with their arms, like sails of a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and forming grotesque antics." Even though the style of the Indians (Flying Gull and Tobacco) was considerably faster, it was not copied, and British swimmers continued paddling along in their accustomed manner. It was not until some forty years later that the Indians' "totally un-European" style was reintroduced as the crawl: a stroke so rapid that it revolutionized competitive swimming.

Yet this revolutionary advancement was really centuries old. The original inhabitants of the Americas, West Africa and some Pacific islands had been using a the of crawl for generations, while Europeans had limited their swimming to the breast and side strokes essentially modifications of what must have been man’s first method of keeping his head above water: the “dog stroke” learned from animals. Although this four-legged paddling style came naturally to many animals, it was at best for man a churning, thrashing and tiring means of getting from one bank of a river to the other.

But he apparently failed to note that this overhand stroke was coupled with a distinctive up-and-down kicking motion. Historians dispute the time of Trudgen’s trip, dating it anywhere from the 1870’s to the 1890’s. But most importantly, upon his return to England, Trudgen began teaching others the new arm movement. Even though swimmers continued using the frog kick of the breaststroke, the overhand arm action gave them significantly more speed and power. Using the Trudgen stroke - as it came to be called - swimmers whittled the record for the 100 yards down from about 70 seconds to 60 seconds.

Trudgen’s teachings turned the swimming emphasis from endurance to speed, but the revolution was only half complete. The leader in the rest of the battle was another Englishman, Frederic Cavill. Using the traditional breaststroke, Cavill became a well known swimmer in England, and in 1878 emigrated to Australia, where he built pools and taught swimming. Just before the turn of the century, Cavill and his family-which included six sons, made a trip to some of the islands of the South Seas. Like Trudgen, he noticed that the natives used an overhand stroke. But Cavill was more observant; he realized that their kicking action was also different, and he closely studied it. Returning to Australia, Cavill taught his sons the new stroke, and they soon were splashing past all existing records. One of the sons, Richard, went to England in 1902 and swam the 100 yards in 58.8, a time his competition, using the less powerful Trudgen stroke, couldn’t approach.

Asked to describe the revolutionary style, one of the Cavills said it was “like crawling through the water.” Gradually it became known as the crawl, and only somewhat modified is the freestyle stroke used today, the basis of swimming competitions.

Years later, when Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii began out-swimming all international competition, someone asked who had taught him the crawl stroke. Kahanamoku, winner of the Olympic 100-meter race in 1912 and 1920, replied, “No one.” He had learned the crawl as a child by watching how the older natives of his home island swam, where, he said, the stroke had been used for “many, many generations.” Kahanamoku set his records using a six-beat cycle, which is now considered the classical freestyle form. Each complete cycle of his arms (entering the water, pulling and recovering) was accompanied by six flutter kicks.

At the 1924 Paris Games, a gangly, 20-year-old American named Johnny Weissmuller pounded past Kahanamoku with this same six-beat cycle, winning the 100 meters in the Olympic record time of 59 seconds flat. Weissmuller picked up two more gold medals at the same Games, and won two at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. The 1920’s was the Golden Age of Sports and Weissmuller was its golden swimmer. He set world records in 67 different events, from 50 yards to 880 yards, before trading swimming for swinging through trees and even greater fame as Hollywood’s most durable Tarzan.

This basic, six-beat cycle crawl of Kahanamoku’s and Weissmuller’s day has changed little.