Number 15 - Section II

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University



Forbes Carlile

[Adapted from Carlile, F. (1963). Forbes Carlile on swimming (pp. 126-188). London, England: Pelham.

Editors' Note: I asked Forbes Carlile if this treatise could be produced in the Swimming Science Journal. I thank him for agreeing. The motivation behind its presentation is that errors in stroke advocacy are being promulgated in today's swimming circles. Some of those errors have been tried in the history of the stroke. Without knowledge of those historical attempts, which were improved upon by later stroke modifications, some swimmers will not be benefited even though they "believe in" those making the recommendations. There is a history of swimming. Knowing what has been emphasized and subsequently improved upon should lead to better coaching and swimming performances. Unfortunately, at the Atlanta Olympic Games all crawl-stroke events except the women's 100 m were slower than at Barcelona. This is the first time that the sport has regressed so dramatically. Such a deviation cannot be explained by the quality of the athlete. As attempts are made to reverse this trend, the lessons that history can teach us are worth considering.]
Table of Contents

  1. First Experiments in Style
  2. The Early Crawl-stroke
  3. Experiments with the Crawl-stroke
  4. The Japanese Era
  5. More Experiments in Style
  6. The Australian Revival
  7. Australian Crawl-stroke To the Start of the 1960s

Section II
The Early Crawl-stroke

It is now more than sixty years since the crawl-stroke was first swum in competition. Realizing that many published accounts of the beginnings of the crawl had been inaccurate or incomplete, in the early 1950s I set about documenting the history of the crawl as a competitive stroke. At that time I was able to contact personally several of the people actually involved and also the close relatives of others. I searched through yellowing newspapers, old magazines and early swimming books. Space here does not allow me to do more than give a bare outline of a story that is full of colorful characters and sometimes bitter rivalries, as men strove for supremacy in speed swimming as the "Australian" crawl-stroke was emerging.

One of the people to whom I spoke was Fredda Cavill. She told me some details of her father and six famous brothers, and of the early days of swimming in Australia. In August 1877 an adventurous Englishman, Fred Cavill, following the example set by Matthew Webb in 1875, determined to become the second man to swim the English Channel. Fred Cavill would have succeeded but unfortunately, during the night after he had struggled to within 50 yards of the shore of France with a strong wind blowing up, the owner of the small boat which was accompanying him refused to continue lest the boat be smashed on the rocks. So, officially the attempt failed. Twenty years later, one of his sons, Charles, became the first man ever to swim the Golden Gate at San Francisco. The Cavill's were a vigorous, highly adventurous family.

In 1879 Fred Cavill voyaged to Australia and started a swimming baths at Lavender Bay in Sydney Harbour. "Professor" Cavill soon had a flourishing business. Of Fred Cavill's six sons, three played an important part in the development of the crawl as a competitive stroke. Syd Cavill wrote in the Sydney Referee (July, 1914) his version of the birth of the crawl-stroke:

"I claim that I am the man who discovered the crawl and that my brother Arthur ("Tums"), who died the other day in Seattle when he froze trying to swim the harbour there, was the first man to swim the stroke in Australia, and that my brother Dick was the man who perfected it. I introduced it into the United States. In 1898 I made up my mind to leave Sydney and try my luck in America. On the way, in Apia (Samoa) I swam against a woman and she gave me the hardest race of my life.

Later I watched her intently. She swam a natural crawl stroke, not kicking her legs at all. I wrote home from Apia telling "Tums" all about it, how I could swim with my legs tied, using the crawl-stroke, as fast as with my legs free using any other stroke. "Tums" set to work and found he could do the same."

To draw attention to the new crawl-stroke, so different from the popular side-stroke, Arthur Cavill challenged Sid Davis to an unusual race. The Sydney Referee (November 13, 1898) described the historic race:

"There was a very large crowd at Davis undertaking to swim with his legs tied while Davis had all his limbs free. A bet of 5 hinged on the race. The course was one lap of the basin, 33 yards. Cavill led throughout and eventually won by one yard, amid a great deal of excitement. The time was 20 seconds."

The race, to many who saw it, proved that the leg action in the double-over-arm stroke should be reduced and kept very narrow. Fred Lane, one of the spectators, has since told me that when Arthur Cavill swam his ordinary stroke he employed an exaggerated drawing up of the top leg which other swimmers had long recognized as a faulty, retarding action. Swimming with his legs tied prevented this retarding action.

In 1898 Alick Wickham, a boy from the British Solomon Islands, arrived in Sydney. His brother Harry wrote me several letters in 1950 when I was investigating the beginnings of the crawl-stroke. Those letters explained that Alick came to Australia on his father's trading schooner, when he was seven years old, and stayed in Sydney for his schooling. Alick was keen on swimming, he played around in the water continually, and in 1898 was entered in a 66 yards under-10 years handicap race in Australia's oldest rock pool at Bronte Beach, a suburb of Sydney. It was here that Alick astonished onlookers with his speed and unusual stroke. Charlie Bell, who raced against him, told me that Wickham:

". . . swam with his head held fairly high, turning it quickly from side to side breathing with each complete stroke, his woolly head apparently not getting wet. The entry of his arms was short and towards the center line of the body with the elbows well bent. His arm action was very fast and short. Each arm performed a symmetrical action with the head turning from side to side as if breathing on each side, but only breathing on one side to each stroke."

Watching young Alick's speed and peculiar continuous movement through the water was George Farmer, one of the prominent swimming coaches of the day. The story has often been told of how Farmer excitedly exclaimed "Look at that kid crawling." The name of the "crawl"-stroke is said to have come from that comment.

Dick Cavill

The Cavills were all notable swimmers. Ernest, Charles, Percy, Arthur, and Syd had all won championships by the time 15-year-old Dick, who was to be the greatest swimmer of them all, won his first New South Wales championship on December 31, 1899.

There is another version of the origin of the name "crawl" as stemming from an occasion when with head down and arms flaying the water, Dick Cavill swam persistently into a rival (there were no lanes in those days) who came out after the race complaining that young Cavill was "crawling all over me. " Early in his competitive career, Dick Cavill swam part side-stroke and part over-arm trudgen, but soon he was able to cover the whole of his races swimming trudgen. Then he experimented with the crawl-stroke and, according to his brother Syd, improved it by adding the vertical kick of the legs. Mind you, Dick did not always win with his new "crawl"-stroke. In December 1900, George Read defeated him to set a new world record for the 440 yards of 5 minutes 42 seconds. This was 7 seconds better than Nuttall's previous record.

Read was one of the greatest swimmers of his day. His interesting style was graphically described in the contemporary press:

"As Read rolls on to his right side with his double-over-arm his left leg draws up from the hip to such an extent that with his face screwed back to the left shoulder for inhalation he conveys the idea that he resembles the domestic cat comfortably coiled up on the hearth."

Read bent his legs in the kick much more than the best English swimmers or most Australians, Lane and others having adopted nearly straight legs and narrow kicks in their scissoring actions.

On March 2, 1901, the first printed reference to the "crawl"stroke appeared in the Sydney Arrow newspaper.

"Cavill will set Hogan and company a lively go in Brisbane, especially when he gets fairly moving with that great crawl kick of his."

Obviously by 1901, Dick Cavill was doing much more than trailing his legs behind him.

Dick Cavill and Fred Lane both went to England in 1902 where Cavill demonstrated his new stroke. Before this time Syd Cavill claims he had introduced the crawl to America. He wrote later:

"I returned to America in 1899 and taught the stroke to all the boys who swam at the San Francisco Olympic Club where I became supervisor of swimming. The first to make good use of it was J. Scott Leary, who was the first to use the crawl in a regular race in America. Leary was a cripple and had a withered leg. He finished third to De Halmay and Daniels in the Olympic 100 yards at St. Louis. Then I taught the stroke to Harry Handy. He won a mile race, and did not kick his legs one inch during the whole race. The stroke did not get to the East Coast of America until much later."

In July 1902 at Manchester, England, Fred Lane narrowly defeated Cavill and the great English swimmer Bob Derbyshire, and became the first man to swim 100 yards in 60 seconds. Two weeks later, Cavill swam 58.5 seconds, swimming from scratch in a handicap race. However, the honor of being the first to officially break the minute for 100 yards goes to Fred Lane, with 59.36 seconds at Leicester on October 9, 1902.

Back in Australia, Annette Kellerman, later to become a famous water-woman, established a world record of 82 seconds for the 100 yards using the double-over-arm (with the scissors-kick). This was during the first series of Ladies Swimming Championships held in Australia. The year was 1902.

When he returned to Australia, Lane retired, unbeaten by Cavill, who went on in 1903 to win all the Australian Championships from 100 yards to the mile.

Cavill's stroke had greatly impressed English swimmers, an English newspaper report quoted in the Sydney Referee said:

"Cavill's marvelous crawl-stroke called forth the admiration of everybody present. His head is low in the water and he breathes by snatches, every five strokes or so. His arms extend wide and sweep under the chest."

A more vivid account of Cavill's stroke in England was given by McArthur Moseley of Leeds, the President of the National Amateur Swimming Association. He said:

"Generally known by the appropriate name of "Splash Cavill," when he is swimming, you see a lot of splash and little of Cavill. One might be pardoned for mistaking him for a screw propellor that received a galvanic shock but the rate he struggles through the water is little short of a miracle. He uses a sort of revised double-over-arm of the trudgen variety. To describe it scientifically or even minutely is impossible."

Dick Cavill must have appeared a very vigorous swimmer when he demonstrated the crawl-stroke to the English - but how did Cavill use his legs?

Were Wickham and Cavill Two-beat Kickers?

What became known as the Australian Crawl-stroke was comprised of two heavy leg kicks -- downward thrashes made with the knees bent and timed so that the left leg beat synchronized with the start of the right arm pull and right arm with left leg.

Later Cecil Healy did a great deal to popularize the two-beat crawl and it is usually assumed that Cavill and Wickham swam this way.

Because we have no movie films of the pioneers when they raced more than 60 years ago, we must rely on descriptions and the recollections of people who saw them swim and what was written about them at the time.

There are two schools of thought on the question of their kicking, those who claim that Wickham and Cavill were two-beaters and those who are equally sure that they were either four- or six-beaters.

Charlie Bell, veteran Sydney swimmer and one of the pioneers of surfing in Australia, was closely associated with swimming since 1900, and he told me he has vivid recollections of Dick Cavill as a two-beater who lifted his right foot well out of the water, smashing it down so strongly that it used to splash spectators in the gallery at the Coogee Aquarium Pool.

From the letter that follows it can be seen that Bill Hill, secretary of the N.S.W. Amateur Swimming Association in its early days agreed closely with Charlie Bell, that Cavill and Wickham were two-beaters, at any rate towards the end of their swimming careers.

A letter from Bill Hill:

"Sydney, February 2, 1954.

Dear Forbes,

I am pleased to give you my recollection of the strokes used by Dick Cavill and Alick Wickham. It is a long time ago but here it is. The crawl-stroke used by Dick Cavill, in the early period of the crawl era had very little, if any, leg work in it. He buried his head, and only inhaled and exhaled at long intervals. The body moved very slightly, but the arms worked rapidly and the legs simply trailed without movement. It must be remembered that all the contests in Sydney at this time were held in salt water with excellent floatation. The buried head also helped to keep the legs in a good position of floatation. However, this method, limited the distance of the stroke's usefulness. Initially 50 yards was the limit, as efforts to extend the distance were made the breathing became more regular, and a slight roll of the shoulders occurred.

Swimming in fresh water in other states of Australia and in England, led to more action of the legs, as the slight roll of the shoulders to the left occurred, it gave the arm pull greater length and it was found that the beat of the right foot and leg helped to roll the body back and resume the balance ready for the slight roll of the right side and beat from the left foot and so on.

For the two or three years before his retirement Dick Cavill used the two-beat crawl. He only used it for distances to 100 yards. In longer races he swam trudgen but when outpaced, as he was on occasions by George Read and Barney Kieren in distance races, he would break into a crawl for a time and then back into the trudgen again.

Alick Wickham, as I remember him, used a slight roll and two beats with the higher head action and more regular breathing. He used up his strength quickly and rarely swam 100 yards without fading at the finishing stages.

Trusting the above may be of some use to you,

Yours sincerely,


There are many students of swimming who have backed up the two-beat version, including Fanny Durack and Bill Longworth, great two-beat swimmers of the outstanding 1912 Australian Olympic team, although Longworth, when I questioned him, made a qualification, saying "Cavill swam a two-eat with possibly two flutters added." Jack Dexter, another keen observer and later for 20 years chairman of the N.S.W. Amateur Swimming Association, supported the two-beat claim. So did Professor Frank Cotton, a N.S.W. champion in 1920 who, before he died in 1955, told me that he had seen Alick Wickham perform many times and had no doubt he used the two-beat timing.

But now the other side of the picture. There was hardly a more astute student of swimming than Frank Beaurepaire who had a great influence on world swimming. Before his death in 1956 he wrote in a letter to me: "Alick Wickham was a true six-beat crawl swimmer. He had a perfect style and was terrific upwards of 75 yards."

Harold Hardwick, another great swimmer and observer and a teammate of Longworth and Fanny Durack at the 1912 Olympics, always regarded both Cavill and Wickham as four-beaters. In November 1939 Hardwick wrote a significant article in which he claimed that the early Australian type of crawl was not confined to the two-beat, but that: "an independent leg action was first swum in competition not by Americans but by Cavill and Wickham. Cavill's stroke was a four-beat, but an uneven one, his right foot being lifted from the water and then thrashed down."

Hardwick told me that in 1903, Phil Boardman of the Sydney Enterprise Club developed a natural six-beat and used it throughout his racing career. Hardwick claimed that Wickham first swam with an "independent six-beat action" but later came under the influence of Cecil Healy and did a two-beat as well. There were others who have strongly argued that Wickham and Cavill used more than a two-beat rhythm.

Wickham's mentor, Fred Gillis, who looked after young Alick when he first arrived from the South Sea Islands, told me that he "never counted Alick's leg beats, but they were very fast." Les Bond, who knew Wickham well, and raced against him, was certain that Alick swam with "at least a four-beat." Club official Arthur Freeman who often saw the young Wickham at Bronte told me: "It was a six-beat which reminded me of an outboard motor."

Sam Smith, a champion swimmer of the period was certain that: "Cavill, like Wickham, swam with continuous kicks." Sam Smith made the significant statement to me that "the Australian two-beat crawl started with Cecil Healy" (that is after 1905).

Cecil Healy was a great performer and teacher of swimming. He was a prolific writer and before he was killed in France a few days before the end of World War I, he wrote that Cavill's stroke was "a crude arrangement consisting largely of splash. It was unattractive in every way."

Frank Beaurepaire backed up this viewpoint of lack of form of the Cavill kick in an article written in 1915 when he said that "the Healy stroke was distinguished from the Cavill splash stroke by rhythmic movements of arms and legs."

Cecil Healy both swam and preached "law and order" in the leg kick. I am inclined to believe it was Healy, and not Cavill or Wickham, who first swam the Australian crawl with the well-defined two leg beats to each cycle of the arms. In 1905 he regarded the trailing, independent action of the legs an "old-fashioned" method.

From time to time in the history of swimming the independent leg action has been treated as something decadent. Man has al-ways liked to systematize things, and it took Australia a long time to break away first from Healy's rigid system of the two-beat, and then many years later from the idea that the six-beat timing of the leg-kick was the last word in crawl technique.


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