On the Sunday before Sydney’s lockdown tightened for the second time, my partner and I drove to Coogee Beach. We were there to see the ocean one last time before our range of movement contracted to a mere five kilometres; a restriction that would cut us off from the coast. Cases that day were in the 400s, and rising, and both of us knew there was little chance we would be allowed back before October at the earliest.
Although it was August it was a beautiful day: gleaming sun, no wind, the sky blue save for a pale scurf of bushfire smoke to the north. Looking down from the cliffs the water was so clear it was possible to see the brown and gold kelp anchored to the bottom several metres below the surface.
On the beach I took off my shoes and t-shirt and dove in. Despite the warmth of the morning sun the water was freezing, and as I knifed down into it I felt my breath catch in my chest.
Normally when it’s cold I catch waves, racing in and out to get my blood moving. But that morning the water was almost completely calm, so instead I struck out into the bay, swimming as fast as I could in an effort to warm up. It wasn’t enough; even once I made my way back in I was still so cold my teeth hurt. But I didn’t care. The late Murray Rose once said a swimmer needs to have ‘a feeling for the water’, and while I would never compare my ability in the water with his, I understand what he means: to enter the water is not like passing into an alien medium; instead surrendering myself to its weightlessness is like returning to something intuitive, a way of being remembered below the level of language or conscious thought.
I have been swimming all my life; so long, in fact, that I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t. Growing up in Adelaide my family lived a couple of streets back from the beach at Glenelg, my summers (and often my winters as well) spent swimming and snorkelling or sailing in my friend Bill’s family’s dinghy; later my parents installed a pool in our back yard, in which I spent hours every day. In my 20s, I started swimming laps, and later took up surfing, using handskis to catch the waves off the rocky coves in Sydney’s east.
These days I no longer live near the beach – the price of real estate and my choice of careers long since pushed me inland – but I still swim laps in my local pool several times a week. I suppose it should be boring tracking up and down the lanes in that oddly institutional setting. But it isn’t. Instead there is a sort of release in relaxing into the meditative motion, in feeling my conscious mind recede as I become the rhythm of my breath, the liquid movement of my body.
This affinity between humans and the water is deep, and ancient. We spend the first nine months of our lives suspended in the liquid of the womb; once we emerge our tissues are made of water, our blood salt as the sea. Studies consistently demonstrate proximity to water, or even just the colour blue, reduces anxiety and improves psychological well-being. Our bodies remember the water in other ways as well: simply submerging our faces immediately triggers a series of hard-wired responses, our heart slowing as it shunts blood away from the extremities to our core in order to preserve oxygen and protect crucial organs. Sometimes known as the mammalian diving reflex, or the master switch of life, this physiological mechanism is common to all mammals, and is actively employed by freedivers, who use their mastery of it to control their bodies and dive to great depths without suffering the ill-effects of hypoxia and nitrogen narcosis.
Some human communities have even evolved adaptations that improve their abilities in the water. The Bajau people of Southeast Asia make their home on the waters of the Philippines, northeast Indonesia and Malaysia. Although many now dwell on land, the Bajau traditionally lived on houseboats, sustaining themselves by fishing and diving, and only coming ashore to trade. Because of their maritime existence, they are as at home in the water as out, often spending many hours every day swimming and diving, sometimes descending to depths of 70 metres and remaining underwater for minutes at a time. Much of this is a result of years of training and expertise, but a 2018 study revealed the Bajau also possess a series of genetic adaptations that seem to equip them to spend time underwater. The most significant of these involves alterations to a gene associated with higher levels of thyroid hormones, and may be the reason the Bajau’s spleens tend to be larger than those of other human populations, thus increasing the supply of oxygenated blood cells. But there is also evidence of adaptation in genes that control the dive reflex, and another that affects the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
There is also is evidence to suggest the Moken people, or Sea-Nomads, who live amongst the islands of the Andaman Sea, have developed the ability to change the shape of the lens in their eyes and reduce the size of their pupils when they dive, allowing them to see as clearly underwater as above. Unlike the abilities of the Bajau this capacity seems to be developed in childhood, perhaps as a result of long periods swimming and diving, rather than being innate, yet it testifies to the ways in which close contact with the water can shape human beings in profound ways.
Some scientists have even gone so far as to suggest swimming made us human. In 1960 the marine biologist Alister Hardy published an article arguing our ancestors may have returned to the water at some point in our evolution, pointing to our relatively streamlined bodies, hairlessness, dive reflex and layer of subcutaneous fat as evidence for such a phase. Hardy even proposed this phase might account for our bipedalism, noting that it is much easier to stand upright when supported by water. Hardy’s ideas were later developed and refined by the Welsh writer, Elaine Morgan, who argued this Aquatic Ape Theory offers an alternative to the patriarchal fantasy of human evolution that focuses on ‘the Tarzanlike figure of the prehominid who came down from the trees, saw a grassland teeming with game, picked up a weapon and became a Mighty Hunter.’
Morgan’s ideas have been largely disproved by more recent discoveries. Yet while there might be alternative explanations for almost all the characteristics the Aquatic Ape Theory tries to explain, there is no question many ancient hominids were at home in the water. Tools found on Crete suggest Homo erectus had reached the island 130,000 years ago, an achievement that would only have been possible by crossing large distances of open water. The ancestors of Flores’ diminutive Homo floresiensis, or hobbits, managed a similar feat even longer ago, reaching the island as much as a million years ago, while on Luzon in the Philippines, the butchered remains of a rhinoceros mingled with stone tools show hominids were present on the island more than 700,000 years ago.
Exactly how these early hominids reached these islands is a matter of debate. Although lower sea levels due to glaciation meant much of the Indonesian Archipelago was part of a land mass known as Sundaland until relatively recently, Flores and the other Wallacean islands are separated from the western end of the archipelago by deep channels that would have remained even when sea levels were at their lowest; similarly Luzon and Crete have both been islands for millions of years. Thus reaching these islands involved crossing wide stretches of often treacherous water.
This might have happened by accident, perhaps as a result of individuals being swept away on floating debris during storms or other natural disasters. But both the speed with which Homo erectus and other species colonised these islands and the fact it occurred multiple times strongly suggests it was an intentional process, involving the construction of watercraft and considerable skill and experience on and in the water.
Archaeological remains on Crete and other islands in Aegean and Ionian Seas suggest our Neanderthal cousins were seafarers as well. But whether they were sailors or not, remains found at several sites in Italy show Neanderthals were diving for clams in the waters of the Mediterranean 90,000 years ago. Evidence Neanderthals swam is backed up by the presence of bony growths in the ear canals of many Neanderthal skulls; in modern humans these same excrescences are most often seen in surfers and swimmers who spend extended periods of time submerged in cold water. Likewise remains found on Gibraltar, where the last Neanderthals survived until a mere 28,000 years ago, show these ancient people caught and butchered seals and dolphins, as well as eating fish and shellfish, all practices that would be extremely difficult were they not comfortable in the sea.
Modern humans have also been at home in the water for tens of thousands of years. Although we do not know for sure what route the ancestors of Australia’s Indigenous peoples took as they migrated through Indonesia some 60,000 years ago, the journey would have involved multiple hops of tens of kilometres, and at least one long crossing of 100 kilometres or so. It beggars belief that this could have happened accidentally, not least because we know these crossings took place many times over thousands of years; as the archaeologist Billy Griffiths has observed, this achievement required ‘a level of language and symbolic ability that are not easily discerned elsewhere in the archaeological record’ (an attempt to re-enact this trip using Stone Age technologies by the First Mariners Project was abandoned in early 2020 due to clashes with Indonesian authorities, but images and videos of the raft – including one of it drifting off to sea after the project collapsed – are still available). The movement of humans south through the Americas also relied upon travel along the coast, a long migration following the ribbon of biologically bountiful seaweed forests now dubbed the kelp highway. Again it seems inconceivable such feats could have been accomplished were these ancient peoples not at least as proficient at swimming as they were at building and navigating watercraft.
Yet the first direct evidence of human swimming comes not from the coast, but somewhere else altogether. In 1933, in the region of the Gilf Kebir plateau in southwestern Egypt known as the Wadi Sura, the Hungarian explorer and archaeologist László Almásy stumbled upon a cave in which images of human figures mingle with paintings of animals such as hippopotamuses and giraffes. The cave is not the only with rock art – indeed the name ‘Wadi Sura’ is sometimes loosely translated as ‘Valley of Pictures’, and other caves nearby feature images of other animals, as well as archers and other human figures – but the paintings Almásy found were different. For there, etched in red across the pale stone, the figures glide and undulate, their bodies horizontal and their arms extended out in front of them in what is clearly a representation of swimming.
Almásy’s discovery was made even more remarkable by its location. For the Gilf Kebir is no watery oasis. Instead it is located in the Libyan Desert region of the Sahara, one of the driest places on Earth. Faced with this conundrum Almásy made a remarkable intellectual leap, asking whether it was possible the region had once been rich with water.
This idea was treated as fanciful at the time, yet as our understanding of our planet’s climatic history has grown more sophisticated Almásy’s intuition has been borne out. The Earth is tilted slightly on its axis, meaning that at any given time one hemisphere or the other is receiving more solar radiation. But this tilt is not constant; instead the planet’s inclination oscillates slightly, moving from a fraction more than 22 degrees to just over 24.5 degrees and back every 40,000 years or so. Some 14,500 years ago, this process caused the African Monsoon to shift northwards slightly, bringing rain to the Sahara. These monsoonal rains filled the valleys and lowlands of the Sahara, transforming the desert into a lush landscape of interconnected lakes and wetlands, teeming with fish and shellfish and animals such as hippopotamuses, elephants, crocodiles and giant tortoises. By 10,000 years ago, when the paintings in the Cave of Swimmers were made, there were humans here as well; although little is known of the people who lived in what is now the Gilf Kebir, we know that at the same time in the Gobero, just under 2000 kilometres to the southwest and now part of the Ténére region of the Sahara in Niger, the people known as the Kiffian were catching fish – including huge Nile perch up to two metres in length – using slim spears with beautifully carved heads and harpoons shaped from bone, as well as producing elegant pottery and jewellery shaped from hippo tusks.
The Cave of Swimmers would later provide one of the inspirations for Michael Ondaatje’s lapidary interrogation of trauma, desire and colonial brutality, The English Patient, with a fictionalised version of Almásy playing the part of the titular patient, and the cave becoming the site not just of his greatest triumph, but also his greatest tragedy:
in Wadi Sura I saw caves whose walls were covered in paintings of swimmers. Here there had been a lake. I could draw its shape on the wall for them. I could lead them to its edge, six thousand years ago.
Yet the figures that stroke their way across the walls of the Cave of Swimmers speak to the planet’s future as well as its past. For 6000 years ago, when the Earth rotation shifted slightly once more, the Sahara dried out incredibly rapidly, transforming the lush wetlands that sustained the lost painters of the Wadi Sura into the barren landscape we know today in the space of only two centuries, a chastening reminder of how abruptly and how dramatically the climate can change, and of the consequences of that. Or, as Ondaatje’s fictional Almásy reflects,
Seas move away, why not lovers? The harbours of Ephesus, the rivers of Heraclitus disappear and are replaced by estuaries of silt. The wife of Candaules becomes the wife of Gyges. Libraries burn.
What is it, though, that we mean when we talk about swimming? For many people who swim regularly the strokes we use feel intuitive. There is freestyle, the fastest and most powerful stroke; the fluid and calming motion of breaststroke and backstroke; the now seldom seen sidestroke; the almost gratuitously performative butterfly.
Yet while the strokes we use seem natural, they are not. Instead they have been developed and refined over time. Butterfly, for instance, seems to have first appeared in the 1920s or 1930s, pieced together by various coaches and swimmers. In his history of swimming, Splash: 10,000 Years of Swimming, Howard Means says that ‘like the proverbial camel, the butterfly stroke appears to have been put together by committee … Credit for the double overarm stroke goes to an Australian, Sydney Cavill; or maybe to the American Henry Myers; or to a German, Erich Rademacher.’ Meanwhile the invention of the dolphin kick is usually attributed to Volney Wilson, a physicist who later worked on the Manhattan Project, although others give the credit to American swimming coach, David Armbruster. Both innovations added power, but paired badly with traditional breaststroke kicks and arm movement, something that was visible at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where American competitors using the new arm movement lost to German, Italian and Japanese swimmers who stuck with traditional breaststroke (an outcome that pleased Hitler). It would take the best part of another 20 years before the Japanese swimmer Jiro Nagasawa thought to combine the two to create the stroke we know today, transforming, in Means’ words, ‘this camel into a racehorse’.
Does it really make sense to speak of a stroke being invented or devised? Perhaps nobody had thought to combine the double overarm stroke with the dolphin kick before Nagasawa, but are we really to believe nobody had wondered whether humans might be able to replicate the motion of aquatic mammals before Volney Wilson was struck by the idea in the Chicago Aquarium in 1934? Or that Sydney Cavill was the first person to experiment with a double overarm stroke?
The absurdity of these propositions is a reminder that swimming – both as a cultural practice and a set of physical skills – is embedded in history. Several millennia ago, cultures around the world swam. As well as the swimming traditions of the Pacific Islanders, Indigenous Australians and others, images from Ancient Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria include depictions of people swimming, while the ruins of the palace at Knossos, in Crete, and at Mohenjo-Daro on the banks of the Indus, in modern-day Pakistan, both contain baths and swimming pools. Further east the Chinese Classic of Poetry, or Book of Odes, the Shijing, contains a reference to swimming that dates back almost 3000 years, while in the Americas Mayan reliefs show swimmers performing something that looks remarkably like breaststroke more than 2000 years ago. And in Europe the Greeks and Romans were also enthusiastic swimmers, building public baths and frequently celebrating the swimmer’s form.
But as the Roman Empire’s influence waned, that began to change. While people elsewhere in the world continued to swim, Europeans abandoned the water, often coming to regard the ocean in particular with fear and horror. The reasons for this were complex, but seem to have had more than a little to do with the rise of the Church and its discomfort with the body. Especially in Britain, swimming came to be regarded as a fool’s activity, and water was transformed from a symbol of purity into a source of suspicion and fear, becoming, as Charles Sprawson puts it in his cultural history of swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, a substance ‘devilish rather than divine … a breeding ground for rats, a source of plague and disease’. The legacy of this rejection of the water persists today, visible in the tendency of Western culture to treat the ocean and other waterways as blank spaces, cultureless voids whose main purpose is to delineate terrestrial spaces, rather than recognising the complex interrelationship of land and water that underpins cultures elsewhere.
This retreat from the water meant European travellers and explorers were often amazed by the natural affinity other cultures felt with the water. During the first encounter between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans, which took place off Senegal in 1445, Portuguese sailors captured several local fishermen; when the men escaped they marvelled at their skill in the water, declaring they ‘dived like cormorants’. A decade later the Venetian merchant Alviste da Cadamosto recorded a Senegalese man who bore a letter to a ship three miles off shore through stormy seas. And in 1520 Cortés’ chronicler Bernal Diaz wrote that ‘like crocodiles or seals’, the Aztec warriors ‘swim as easily as they walk on land’. Even as late as the end of the eighteenth century Joseph Banks was awestruck by the fearlessness and fluid skill of bodysurfing Tahitians.
Although Leonardo da Vinci sketched designs for a ring-like life preserver around 1500, the first real sign of a revival of educated interest in swimming in Europe would not be until 1531, and the publication of English diplomat Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governor, which suggested that, while usually neglected, swimming should form part of the education of young noblemen. This was followed in 1538 by Swiss scholar and linguist Nikolaus Wynmann’s Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi dialogus et festivus et iucundus lectu (The Swimmer, or a Merry Dialogue on the Art of Swimming), and, more importantly again, Cambridge theologian Everard Digby’s 1587 treatise, De Arte Natandi.
Digby’s book, which was translated into English by Christopher Middleton as A short introduction for to learne to swimme, makes some surprising claims, including that humans excel at swimming ‘above all fouls of the air, fishes of the sea, beasts of the earth, or other creatures whatsoever’ (this unlikely proposition is justified by the fact swimming is the only gift God bestowed upon fish, whereas men can dive to the bottom of the sea, carry things, swim on their backs and just generally cavort in the water in a way animals and fish cannot). But Digby also argues eloquently for the importance of learning to swim, not just as a way of guarding against the danger of drowning, but as a way of cleansing the body, cooling off in summer, and promoting longevity.
Digby advocates four strokes – breaststroke, backstroke, a form of sidestroke and an exhausting looking doggy paddle – as well as various ‘decorative feats’, which include using the hands to hold two birds out of the water while swimming a form of backstroke. But possibly even more importantly, Digby included a series of woodcuts, purporting to show how one might swim. And while these images might seem curious to a contemporary eye, and their practical application is limited at best, their energy and playfulness evoke a delight that is immediately familiar, and suggest a way of imagining the body in water that presages a new way of inhabiting its fluidity.
Over the next century or two various treatises expounding the virtues of swimming were published in England and Europe, and various educational institutions, including schools such as Eton and Harrow, began to train young men to swim as a safeguard against drowning. But it was not until the mid-eighteenth century, that the activity really came back into vogue.
One of the most significant figures in this process was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin learned to swim as a boy in Boston, where he took pleasure in diving into the water as well as rowing boats and canoes, a proclivity he took with him to England in 1724. In London the 18 year-old Franklin taught several of his friends to swim, and in 1726, not long before he returned to Philadelphia, demonstrated his prowess in the water to a boatload of acquaintances by diving into the Thames and swimming several kilometres from Chelsea to Blackfriars, ‘performing on the Way many Feats and Activity, both upon and under the Water, that supriz’d and pleas’d those to whom they were Novelties.’
Franklin’s passion for swimming was part of a wider revival of interest in the benefits of physical exercise during the eighteenth century, a process that saw the educated and wealthy take up a range of activities. In the case of swimming this process was hastened by medical theories that extolled the virtues of immersion, especially in seawater. But it was also driven by political forces, as new models of military training developed in the wake of Napoleon’s military successes led to many nations incorporating swimming into their regimes for recruits. No longer just a dalliance for those who sought health or pleasure, it began to be associated with martial virtues and manliness.
This idea of swimming as a symbol of male courage and endeavour was given even greater currency in the early nineteenth century by Lord Byron. In 1810, the 22 year-old Byron and a young marine, Lieutenant William Ekenhead, attempted to replicate the mythical Leander’s fateful swim across the Hellespont. Setting off from Sestos, Byron and Ekenhead struck out towards Abydos, but abandoned the attempt after the current swept them so far seaward they were afraid they would be borne out into the open sea. A week later they tried again, and succeeded, reaching the southern shore in just over an hour.
Byron was soon celebrating his achievement in correspondence, verse and conversation (Sprawson describes Byron’s habit of pausing to ask his manservant how far he had swum whenever the subject of swimming came up. ‘Fletcher would dutifully reply: “Three miles and a half, my Lord,” and Byron would resume with a description of his swim.’).
Over the next few decades the popularity of swimming surged in Europe and America. In London and other metropolitan centres pools began to be constructed, partly as a means to promote hygiene and cleanliness, partly as places of recreation. People began racing as well, and champions emerged, as did an entire industry of swimming instructors and coaches to assist those who wished to improve their skills.
Although there were a number of odd variations, many of the strokes used in these races and carnivals would have been familiar to a modern observer. Yet there was one very notable absence: nobody swam the overarm or front crawl stroke modern swimmers know as freestyle. Instead, in Britain, Europe and America, breaststroke was king.
These days breaststroke is often regarded as a slower, weaker stroke than freestyle, perhaps because it is often favoured by women. (In his classic account of free swimming in Britain, Waterlog, Roger Deakin quotes the writer and historian Ken Worpole, who during a visit to Australia found he was the only man swimming breaststroke. ‘You should understand,’ Worpole’s host helpfully explained, ‘In Australia, swimming strokes are deeply gendered.’) Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate its power. Byron’s many feats of aquatic prowess were all swum breaststroke, and Captain Matthew Webb, who in 1875 became the first man to swim across the English Channel, also swam breaststroke, battling jellyfish stings and difficult currents to complete the 66 kilometre route he took in just under 22 hours (although Webb’s feat made him a star, his attempts to capitalise on his fame mostly misfired, and he later died attempting to swim across the Whirlpool Rapids, just below Niagara Falls).
Still, exactly why Europeans fixated on breaststroke isn’t clear. It’s possible it it may have been a result of the European preference for swimming in relatively placid lakes and rivers, as opposed to the turbulent waters of the ocean, where overarm strokes come into their own. But Sprawson suggests the stroke’s dominance may evolved out of a general suspicion of infection in water of dubious quality: ‘the breaststroke evolved as it kept the body flat on the surface, and the long sweeping motions of the hands prevented anything obnoxious from entering the mouth’; while Means traces its evolution from the emphasis upon the frog as a model for human swimming, arguing that ‘what became quickly known as breaststroke … just made sense’.
Nor is there any question overarm swimming has been in use in other parts of the world since ancient times. Images in the memorial temple of Rameses II show Ancient Egyptians using a form of crawl more than 3000 years ago, and similar images exist of Assyrians swimming the crawl while crossing a river from 860BCE (assisted in one case by an inflated goat bladder). A version of the stroke was common in the Pacific as well: in the sixteenth century Magellan observed Micronesians swimming an overarm crawl, while one of the last records left by the ill-fated Lapérouse contains an account of Easter Islanders doing the same, together with a comment about the speed and power of their swimming. European travellers also often commented on the aquatic abilities of Africans and Native Americans, and their use of overarm strokes. Yet in Britain and Europe, overarm swimming was regarded as ungentlemanly, the civilized and scientific nature of English swimming contrasted with the vulgar and animalistic practices of other cultures.
This was vividly illustrated in 1844, when two Ojibwe men, Flying Gull and Tobacco, who had been brought to London by a Canadian promoter, provided the first known demonstration of overarm swimming in England. Before a crowd of several hundred at London’s Holborn Baths, the pair swam two lengths, finishing the 130 feet in less than half a minute, before facing off against the noted English breaststroker, Harold Kenworthy.
Despite the two men’s speed in the water, The London Times described their style of swimming as ‘totally un-European,’ deploring its forceful breathing and ‘grotesque antics’. It also celebrated the reassertion of English dignity in the match-up with Kenworthy, who beat Flying Gull and Tobacco with ‘the greatest ease’.
This notion of breaststroke as the epitome of European elegance and civilization persisted well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed while a form of crawl would make itself known in the 1870s, when the English swimmer John Trudgen combined an overarm stroke with a version of sidestroke to create the Trudgen Stroke, crawl strokes did not really begin to supplant breaststroke amongst Europeans until the beginning of the twentieth century, when Sydney swimmer and swimming coach, Dick Cavill introduced the stroke that would become modern freestyle, the Australian crawl.
While the Australian crawl took the world by storm, and made Cavill a star, its origins suggest a different kind of history. Legend has it that the originator of the stroke was not Cavill, but a young Solomon Islander, Alick Wickham. Wickham, who was employed as a house boy, often swam in weekend races at the Bronte Baths, usually employing the stroke he had learned in Roviana Lagoon, the tapa-tapala. According to this version of the story swimming coach George Farmer spotted Wickham swimming tapa-tapala during one such session and exclaimed ‘look at that kid crawl!’ Intrigued, Cavill and his family adopted and refined Wickham’s style, developing the basic form of the stroke we know today.
The Australian historian Gary Young argues this version of the stroke’s origin does not accord with the historical record, and that Cavill may have picked up the technique earlier, while on a trip through the Pacific. Yet like the British disdain for ‘native swimming’, or indeed the erasure of the influence of Indigenous swimming techniques more generally, the story of the crawl’s invention and appropriation is a reminder swimming was enmeshed in the racial politics of its time, and the systems of colonialism and nationalism which gave shape to them. For the English their prowess in the water was a symbol of British superiority and racial vigour. Matthew Webb, the Channel swimmer, reflected these beliefs when he remarked, ‘None of the black people I have ever known approach a first-class English swimmer’.
This idea of swimming as an expression of national pride was not confined to Europe. In Japan, a place where the water and swimming have long been deeply enmeshed in social and cultural life, swimming was regarded as one of the military arts. Those proficient were expected to be able to swim strokes such as the Hira-Oyogi, or classical Japanese breaststroke, and to master such improbable feats as Tachi-Oyogi-Shageki, a special eggbeater kick that allowed those who had mastered it to hold a gun or a bow perfectly level with their arms, or Inatobi, a kick powerful enough to launch those who had mastered it out of the water and into a boat like a dolphin.
Nonetheless the incorporation of swimming into the idea of the nation and its symbolic power reached its apotheosis in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Germans had long regarded swimming as a central part of their military tradition, tracing its origins as a symbol of German vitality and heroism back to Germanic tribes such as the Suebi, whose prowess in the water was noted by Julius Caesar and others. The Nazis married these fantasies of Aryan vigour to Classical ideals of bodily perfection, and imbued them with mythic power. As Sprawson observes,
in the image of the diver and swimmer the Germans have expressed the spirit of war and adventure, their yearning for Faustian depths of knowledge, for spiritual and physical perfection. Through swimming they were able to recover contact with the mythical past, both Greek and their own.
These ideas are given queasily powerful expression in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandising hymn to the 1936 Olympics, where scenes featuring a sleekly charming and masterful Hitler sit alongside footage of divers in flight. As with much of Riefenstahl’s work, it is difficult to untangle the aesthetic power of the whole from the toxic delusions of national and racial supremacy that animate it. Yet as the perfectly muscled bodies of the divers soar and somersault against the sky, the editing speeds up, and the montage becomes more grandiose and surrealistic, until they become part of an extraordinary, transcendent whole, beautiful and deadly.
This racialized idea of the swimmer and their body was also present on the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps most obviously in the casting of a swimmer, the great Johnny Weismuller, in the lead role of the film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. As Aaron Bady has observed, Tarzan’s racism is baked in:
the name ‘Tarzan’ literally means ‘White Skin,’ and the zest and righteousness with which he kills Africans is such an organic part of the character that, if you took the racism away, there wouldn’t be much left.
Seen through this lens Weismuller’s long-legged, sleekly-muscled physique and Aryan good looks (he was born Johann Weismuller, in Freidorf, in what is now Romania) take on an even more disquieting charge, quite literally embodying the colonial and racist fantasies underpinning the character.
These elements converge in an extended underwater sequence originally shot for Weismuller’s second Tarzan film, 1934’s Tarzan and his Mate, in which Tarzan and Jane frolic underwater, Tarzan clad only in a loincloth, Jane nude (Weismuller’s co-star, Maureen O’Sullivan, was replaced by Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim for the underwater scenes).
The scene, which was cut from the film before release, is as startling for its balletic beauty as it is for its daring. Against the dark backdrop of the pond Tarzan and Jane move effortlessly, their pale bodies dappled in the light from above. Their nudity is at once liberating and beautiful, their bodies careless in their grace and power. As if to underline its eroticism, O’Sullivan’s low, delighted laugh when she finally surfaces is unmistakeably, nakedly sexual. Yet despite the scene’s beauty there is also something unsettling about it, a sense in which the Whiteness of their bodies is uncanny, even deathly.
Perhaps ironically, Tarzan and his Mate was banned in Nazi Germany, whose censors objected to its depiction of a Nordic man living like a savage. Yet one only has to think about the stereotypical images of blond, sun-kissed swimmers and surfers to see how these associations between Whiteness and the water, and Whiteness and the swimmer persist in many cultures.
Nowhere is this more true than in Australia, where the idea of the beach, its classlessness and generosity is one of the most-treasured myths of White Australian culture. Certainly it is not coincidental that Malcolm Turnbull chose to evoke visiting Bondi as a boy in the speech he gave after winning the seat of Wentworth at the 2007 election, evoking a place where bricklayers and barristers lived and played side by side, a place characterised by what he dubbed, in a characteristically Turnbullian turn of phrase, ‘the democracy of the surf club’. Yet as the riots that erupted in Cronulla in 2005, in which young men draped with Australian flags chanted ‘We grew here, you flew here’ and attacked people of colour, demonstrate, this supposed classlessness and openness hides an uglier – and deeply racialized – reality.
Despite this, swimming has also often served as source of shared experience and community for the oppressed. The historian Kevin Dawson has written of the way enslaved Africans preserved aquatic skills and understandings from their original cultures, passing them down through multiple generations, and of the way a shared proficiency in the water often became a means for the disparate cultural groups thrown together on slaveships and plantations to find new forms of community. As Dawson observes, ‘cultural resilience served as a mechanism of resistance’.
In Africa at least, many of these skills persist. Despite the tendency to attribute its invention to Polynesians, sources make it clear Africans were also experienced surfers long before the first encounters with Europeans; in Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and many other places this tradition continues to flourish. Yet elsewhere the picture is very different. People of colour are drastically underrepresented in competitive swimming, and on the Olympic swimming teams of both Australia and America. In the United States only 1 per cent of the 400,000 swimmers registered with USA Swimming are African-American, and Black Americans drown at five times the rate of White Americans. And while Black surfers are growing in numbers in the United States, surfing remains a largely White domain, a space in which people of colour are treated with suspicion and violence. These statistics reflect a noxious legacy of exclusion from places such as pools and beaches, as well as a lack of access to swimming lessons and water safety training arising from poverty that mean a staggering 70 per cent of Black American children cannot swim.
Many of the same processes are visible in Australia. Early writers often praise the skills of Aboriginal swimmers: in 1788, John Hunter wrote the ‘the men … dive for shell-fish, which they take off from rocks under water, we frequently see them leap from a Rock into the Surf or Broken Water, and stay surprisingly long under’; while nearly fifty years later William Govett declared ‘the natives are not … Cowards of the Deep; … they are bold and surprisingly expert, both in swimming and diving,’ as well as describing one Aboriginal man who dived off a rock into a wave and stayed underwater for ‘full a minute’ before riding the ‘heaving surge’ back onto the rock. Yet as the story of the Freedom Riders, who in 1965 braved an abusive crowd in the Moree Baths reminds us, Indigenous Australians have a long history of exclusion from beaches and swimming pools, and even today are 1.7 times more likely to drown than non-Indigenous Australians.
Nor is this history over. In 2018 two Aboriginal boys, 16 year-old Christopher Drage and 17 year-old Trisjack Simpson drowned after diving into Perth’s Swan River while fleeing police. Speaking at the time a lawyer representing one of Christopher and Tsjack’s friends observed the colonial past was really the colonial present, asking,
What’s changed really since the massacre at Pinjarrah, when Sterling and the troopers … rode down onto the Aboriginal camp with men and women, children scattering across the river scared and terrified?
Likewise Gomeroi man, Gordon Copeland, disappeared in July this year after a police chase; police claim he leapt into the Gwydir River after they stopped to investigate a bogged car; his family allege the police chased the car and Copeland, who was terrified of the police, dived into the river to escape them. What is not in question is that it took almost three months and a concerted campaign by his family and their supporters for Copeland’s body to be found.
It’s possible the Romantic notion of the swimmer also persists in the tendency to imagine the swimmer as a solitary figure, somehow separate from society. It is a notion that lies at the heart of John Cheever’s famous story, ‘The Swimmer’, in which a man decides to follow ‘a string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved its way across the county’ back to his home, yet finds himself swimming out of time, cut off from the changing world by his own failure to assume responsibility. This idea surfaces elsewhere as well: the freediver Joanna Nordblad, who specialises in a form of dynamic freediving that involves swimming as far as possible under ice on a single breath, has said that, ‘people don’t like to practise freediving in Finland because the water is black in the depths, but that’s exactly why I like it so much. Down below there are no colours, no sounds. There’s nothing … You are completely alone with yourself.’ As my friend, the philosopher Damon Young, has observed, swimming brings us into contact with the sublime, reminding us of our physical fragility and finitude in the face of the water’s immensity and mystery.
Others have written of swimming as a kind of addiction. Sprawson notes that English opium-eater, Thomas de Quincey seemed to intuit a relationship between swimming and taking drugs, citing his observation he had consumed so much opium he ‘might as well have bathed and swum in it’, and the way opium inclines the mind toward images of moving water.
The writer Thad Ziolkowski makes a similar connection between surfing and addiction, arguing not just that ‘surfing is a … parable of addiction,’ and alluding to the addictive ‘thrill of being gathered up and borne along as if by magic,’ but that the passage into the physical and psychological zone of surfing, that transitional zone between the shore and the open ocean, between thought and action, involves a kind of psychosocial liminality. ‘Addiction is liminal too, an interstitial realm divided from workaday reality by an unseen veil … Addicts and surfers, too – are … threshold people, who exist on the margins of society in a state of social invisibility and lowliness.’ It is an idea Roger Deakin echoes, when he writes of swimming as ‘skirting the boundaries of unconsciousness: the line between dreaming and drowning’.
Yet more often swimming seems to present itself as a route to recovery and restoration. This notion is present in the rash of works about wild swimming and swimming as a form of nature cure. The writer Wendell Steavenson has written eloquently about finding her way through loss through swimming, and the community of swimmers she found in a Breton village. Amy Liptrot reprises ideas of addiction in her remarkable memoir of recovery, The Outrun, in which swimming in the icy waters of the Orkneys becomes part of a process of personal reimagination. In Swimming with Seals, Victoria Whitworth swims as a way of processing the loss of her mother, and to think through her experiences of depression and loss. But she also finds in swimming a way of leaving the restrictions of the world behind, of entering a place where the contemporary world falls away, so swimming dissolves time, making it so ‘gossamer-thin‘, the past becomes a living presence. Likewise in Turning, Jessica Lee swims the lakes around Berlin one by one, gradually emerging from paralysing depression.
It is perhaps significant how many of these narratives are by women, and how many take place in the cold waters of Europe and Britain; if nothing else it says something about the ways in which colonial structures still shape cultural flows. Yet they all suggest the ways in which immersion in water – and swimming in particular – offers an opportunity to reimagine ourselves and the nature of our relationship to the world around us. When we swim we become part of something larger, our bodies part of the tidal flow and movement of water, the great pulse of the planet’s systems, the act of giving ourselves over to the water a form of communion, of embodied connectedness. As the Blue Humanites scholar Steve Mentz so eloquently puts it, ‘swimming can become an ecological meditation for the Anthropocene’.
This idea lies at the heart of New Zealand author Ingrid Horrocks’ beautiful and often profound Where We Swim: Explorations of Nature, Travel and Family. Unlike many swimming memoirs, Horrocks’ journey does not begin in crushing loss or disaster. Instead she finds herself suspended in the liminal space of middle age, that space of tidal transition when worries about the frailty of ageing parents sharpen and children begin to leave us behind, feelings freighted by her growing awareness of ecological breakdown and loss.
For Horrocks swimming is not a heroic act. Instead it is a way of thinking about a series of ideas of connectedness – social, biological, historical, ecological – and of imagining a way of being that is attendant to them. When we swim we become aware we are not unitary and alone; instead we are part of one immense, interconnected whole, the water a membrane stretching outward through space and time. Understood in this way, water’s mutability becomes a way of imagining and even inhabiting different ways of being, of acknowledging the intermingling of our bodies and lives. Or as Horrocks puts it, ‘the question didn’t seem to be so much why we swim, as where and how we swim, and with whom.’
This awareness is given its most eloquent shape in a section midway through the book when Horrocks goes whale watching with her family off Western Australia. Glimpsing a pod of humpbacks Horrocks finds herself ‘fleetingly able to imagine the lives of pod upon pod of whales,’ an awareness that allows her a momentary glimpse of the vast motion of planetary systems, the deep webs of story and culture that bind the Whadjuk Noongar people to their Country, and the threads of biology and shared heritage that connect us all:
After we returned home it felt as though the whales swam inside me, pushing outward and creating enough volume for multiple ways of being in the world, for multiple grammars and songs, the evolution of myriad co-existing routes. It seemed possible there could be ways to inhabit this planet together, all of us swimming in the same brine. Those of us who were left.
Swimming enacts a different kind of politics as well. In 2016 the International Olympic Committee chose ten athletes to perform as part of a special Refugee Olympic Team. One of the ten was 18 year-old swimmer Yusra Mardini. Originally from Syria, Mardini fled Syrian after her family’s home was destroyed in 2015. Together with her sister, Sara, Mardini made her way to Turkey, where she and Sara and 18 others found passage on a boat to Greece. Yet once they were on the water the boat, which was only fit for half a dozen, began to take on water. Realising the boat was sinking, Mardini, her sister and two others dove into the freezing Aegean and began to tow it through the water. ‘We were the only four who knew how to swim. I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.’
Mardini’s story is only one part of a much larger story. Between 2014 and 2021, more than a million people attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, often in small and unseaworthy craft; every year, thousands drown. Most of these were fleeing the war in Syria, a conflict caused, at least in part, by growing aridity and drought as a result of climate change.
The crisis in Syria offers a glimpse of a future that is now inescapable, a reminder the chaos and dislocation caused by global heating and rising sea levels will only accelerate in years to come. The effects of this will fall hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable, repeating the crimes and violence of the past, yet nobody will be left untouched.
In that future we will all need to be swimmers, to know how to survive. But we will also need to learn to recognise our connectedness, the bonds that bind us to each other, the way we are a part of a larger whole.
John Cheever, Collected Stories (Vintage, 1990).
Kevin Dawson, Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Roger Deakin, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain (Vintage, 2014).
Billy Griffiths, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc, 2018).
Ingrid Horrocks, Where We Swim: Explorations of Nature, Travel and Family (University of Queensland Press, 2021).
Jessica J. Lee, Turning: A Swimming Memoir (Virago, 2017).
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun (Canongate, 2015).
Howard Means, Splash: 10,000 Years of Swimming (Allen and Unwin, 2020).
Steve Mentz, Ocean (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
John Ogden, People of the Fatal Shore: Sydney’s Southern Beaches (Cyclops Press, 2012).
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Bloomsbury, 1992).
Gary Osmond, ‘Indigenous Sporting Pasts: Resuscitating Aboriginal Swimming History’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, Vol. 2017, No. 2, 2017, pp. 43-55.
Charles Sprawson, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (Vintage, 2013).
Victoria Whitworth, Swimming with Seals (Head of Zeus, 2017).
Thad Ziolkowski, The Drop: How the Most Addictive Sport Can Help Us Understand Addiction and Recovery (Harper Wave, 2021).