A HISTORY OF CRAWL STROKE TECHNIQUES TO THE 1960s: AN AUSTRALIAN PERSPECTIVE: SECTION I
There is good evidence that an over-arm stroke was used in antiquity by the Assyrians and Greeks, at least 800 years before the birth of Christ, and that a variety of the crawl stroke was the natural style of South Sea Island natives, North American Indians, and the Kaffirs of South Africa. The over-arm stroke was lost in Europe during the Dark Ages when swimming was unpopular because epidemics were a constant dread, and, perhaps with some justification, swimming was believed to help the spread of diseases.
In the sixteenth century, due to such thinkers as Martin Luther and Montaigne, swimming was revived in Europe, with an under-arm dog-paddle stroke being used. The dog-paddle stroke persisted in some parts of the Continent, for example among the Slav peoples, but in England a primitive breast-stroke emerged and was used in 1837 in London at the first races held by the National Swimming Society.
In the London Times (April 22, 1844) there is an account of a race between two North American Indians - "Flying Gull" and "Tobacco" - and an Englishman Kenworthy, which gives us a good idea of contemporary beliefs about technique in speed swimming. The race was over one lap of the 43-yard pool. Of the Indians it was reported:
"Their style of swimming is totally un-European. They lash the water violently with their arms like the sails of a windmill and beat downward with their feet with force."
Because the breast-stroker Kenworthy "with the greatest ease" beat the over-arm swimmers, little notice was taken of what appeared to be the "freak" over-arm swimming of the Indians.
During the 1840s, in a quest for greater speed, the horizontal breast-stroke gave way to a style swum on the side. In the side-stroke which evolved, the swimmer remained on his/her side throughout the stroke. Both knees were drawn up, then the legs were opened wide and swept together in a scissoring movement. From above, a side-stroker looked very like a man running. The arms were pulled back alternately so that the dead point of propulsion in the breast-stroke was to some extent overcome. Both arms were brought forward again under the water. This English side-stroke became the most popular racing style.
In 1855 in London C. W. Wallis demonstrated a new stroke to "Professor" Fred Beckwith. Wallis came from Australia where he had seen the aborigines gliding through the water in the Lane Cove River at Fig Tree in Sydney. The natives brought one arm forward over the water.
Using the new single-arm-over side-stroke Beckwith became champion of England in 1859, and his pupil, Gardener, with a similar single-arm-over recovery triumphed in 1860. For the next forty-six years the long-distance championship of England was won by side-strokers using the single-arm-over recovery.
John Trudgen's Stroke
On August 11, 1873, at the Lambeth Baths, London, an Englishman, John Trudgen, made swimming history by bringing both arms over the water and winning a 160 yards handicap. The stroke he used made him the speediest sprinter of his time. Keeping flat on his chest with his head carried high in the air, Trudgen startled onlookers by swinging each arm alternately over the water and making one horizontal breast-stroke kick to each cycle of the arms, so that his body lifted and progressed in jerky leaps. Trudgen said he had learned his stroke from the South African Kaffirs when he had lived abroad with his father who was an engineer.
Trudgen's stroke was successful for short races, but distance swimmers like the English amateur champions Tyers and Jarvis and the Professional champion Nuttall, all wonders of the swimming world in the 1890s, remained single-arm-over side-strokers. It could be said that Trudgen was the 'sprint" champion of the time.
Tyers in 1895 held the English amateur record for the 220 yards with a time of 2 minutes 41 seconds and Nuttall the professional record with 2 minutes 37 seconds.
During the 1890s swimmers started using an important modification of the single-arm-over side-stroke technique. This was written of Tyers at the time:
"Instead of drawing both knees well up, he has a peculiar kick, he appears to open his legs wide with little or no drawing-up of the knees, and then brings his legs together exceedingly fast. Of course this snap together is what all good side-strokers do, but the opening-out peculiarity is a noticeable feature of all Manchester swimmers."
This so-called Lancashire or North of England leg kick was timed to be made when the pulling arm was practically at right angles to the shoulder under the water. Jarvis, also from the North of England, was described as being:
". . . like an electric launch going through the water, hardly a ripple, no jerk. His legs cross for the world like a pair of scissors half open."
There was an interesting description of Jarvis, who later won at the Olympic Games. He was:
". . . fat all over, which literally hangs in some parts. His breasts fall like a woman's, but he has powerful shoulders and tremendous thighs."
Modern champions are not built like this!
During the 1890s, while most swimmers were using their own variations of the single-arm-over side-stroke, some were using a stroke which evolved from the one Trudgen had demonstrated. The swimmer moved from the flat position to his side and back again during each over-arm cycle. The side-stroke scissors-kick replaced the breast-stroke kick of Trudgen. This stroke with the side-stroke-scissors became known as the double-over-arm, but in England was used only for short distances and for a long time was not successful as a racing stroke.
Later any double-over-arm stroke with a side-stroke leg action became known as the "trudgen" (often misspelled trudgeon) although John Trudgen himself as we have said, actually used a breast-stroke kick and bounced along with shoulders horizontal whilst he recovered each arm alternately over the water.
Progress in Australia
Although there is evidence that from the time the First Fleet arrived in 1788 a good deal of swimming went on around Sydney Cove, the first regular championships in Australia were held during 1889 at the now demolished Sydney Natatorium baths in Upper Pitt Street near the Central Railway Station. Salt water was pumped from the harbor nearly two miles away.
Charlie Hellings won the first New South Wales 100 yards Championship in 71 seconds, but the outstanding swimmer of this period in Australia was burly W. J. "Paddy" Gormly who came close to world record times in New South Wales Championships between 1890 and 1895. His leg action was unusual; he accompanied his single-arm-over side-stroke with a scissors-kick in which ". . . he lifted his upper leg (his left) clean out of the water from knee to foot before thrashing it down."
In 1892 Dr. A. T. Kenny of Melbourne, traveled to America and competed in the National Titles where he won the 100 yards and the one mile. It was not until after 1900 that the American swimmers could match the English or Australians.
In January 1896 Percy Cavill, one of the famous swimming Cavill family, burst on to the Australian swimming scene. He was a left-arm-over side-stroker who won the Australian mile championship at Windsor in New South Wales in the open waters of the Hawkesbury River. In this race his brother Arthur ("Tums") Cavill, who was the 440 yards champion of Australia, had himself suspended by the officials, when, in an attempt to help his brother, he joined in the race for the last 200 yards and fouled and injured Gormly. These early days in the history of Australian swimming were indeed colourful! Arthur Cavill, following his disqualification, became a professional and later made important contributions to speed swimming.
Success with the Double-Over-Arm Stroke
Before the turn of the century, in the many bays of Sydney Harbor a few youngsters were practicing the double-over-arm stroking action. Both arms recovered over the water and the legs made a side-stroke scissors-kick. One of the these boys was Freddy Lane (who, when over 80, in 1963, was still telling stories of the early days of swimming). Another was Peter Murphy, who, on January 19, 1896, swam in the Australasian 880 yards championship, in the Cockatoo Dock, Sydney. Although Murphy was beaten by Percy Cavill and, in fact, came only third, his swim was at the time remarkable because he used the double-over-arm technique with both arms recovering out of the water for the whole distance. It was, according to the press:
"A fact perhaps without parallel in any Championship contested in the world. This particular mode of progression is so severe an attack on endurance that swimmers rarely use it over a distance exceeding 200 yards. There is no record of any other swimmer having done what Murphy did in the half-mile . . ."
In January 1899, the 18-year-old elf-like Freddy Lane performed the unprecedented feat of swimming with two arms over the water for the complete distance and winning the N.S.W. Mile Championship at Wagga Wagga on the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales.
When I saw Lane swim first in 1945 and then in 1960 the characteristics of his vigorous stroke were still evident. Lane's head was carried high and his kick was a narrow scissors-kick with a straight top leg and a narrow circling action of the underneath leg. His top leg moved sideways only about 15 inches and its narrow whip-like closing sweep gave him considerable power in the leg drive. Swimming on his left side Lane synchronized the beginning of the pull with each scissors-kick, thus differing in his timing from the English swimmers in Lancashire whose leg kicks were made in the middle of arm stroke.
Late in 1899 Lane made his first voyage to England, where he dead-heated with Derbyshire, another double-over-arm swimmer, setting a new world record for 220 yards with 2 minutes 34 seconds. Then at the Paris Games in 1900 Lane won the 200 meters Freestyle event for Australia and proved to the world his mastery of the double-over-arm. However, the double-over-arm stroke was not to be so easily accepted by all; on July 11, 1900 appeared the following, written under the by-line of Natator (W. F. Corbett, Sr.), an expert writer for the Sydney Referee:
"Even the best swimmers of the trudgen rarely use it for a race of more than 100 yards. In fact, the only man who depends upon it for any distance race is Fred Lane. That it is harmful to have to use this method of progression is shown by the fact that he is frequently so exhausted that he has to be assisted out of the water, sometimes bleeding freely through the nostrils from the strain. He has also been known to be quite prostrate for hours after the race. Never use the trudgen stroke except for short distances!"
It appears that those who break new ground in swimming technique have always had their critics!
Return to Table of Contents for Swimming Science Bulletin.