A history of the world in 101/2 inches

16 Swimming
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Fornication avec l'onde was how Paul Valery described swimming, and humans have been fornicating with the waves for as long as history records. "And he will spread out his hands ... as a swimmer spreads his hands out to swim," says Isaiah (Ch.25 v.10). In Greek mythology too, we have the lovelorn Leander drowning in his attempt to swim the Hellespont in order to be with his girlfriend Hero.

The trouble with the Hellespont is that while it is only about a mile and a half across, the currents are so strong you have to swim five or six miles to get to the other side. Byron managed it in an hour and 10 minutes on 3 May 1810 and wrote, when he had dried himself off: "I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do any kind of glory, political, poetical, rhetorical."

Other notable names in the history of swimming include the following:

Robert Hawker, a late 19th century vicar of Mortenstow, who liked to sit on a rock off the coast at Bude, wearing only a seaweed wig and an oilskin wrapped around his legs, trying to persuade holidaymakers he was a mermaid.

Matthew Webb (1848-83), known as "Captain Webb", who, even before he became the first man to swim the Channel, had won a wager that he could remain in the sea longer than a Newfoundland dog. After Webb had remained in the water for an hour and a half it was reported that "the poor brute [the dog, presumably] was nearly drowned". His Channel swim took him nearly 22 hours and a distance of about 40 miles. He was coated in porpoise fat.

Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1979), the first Englishwoman to swim the Channel, the first person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. In 1932, she broke her own endurance record, swimming for 46 hours in municipal baths, supported by the community singing of well-wishers. The money she earned from swimming enabled her to set up the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for Destitute Men and Women.

Sir Arthur Elvin (1899-1957), who joined the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, was shot down and taken prisoner. He escaped, but was recaptured "because he knew neither French nor German and could not swim." This gave him the ambition to build a public swimming pool, which he realised with the launch of the Empire Pool, Wembley, and led to his later founding Wembley Stadium.

Christopher Middleton (1560-1628), author of A Short Introduction for to Learn to Swimme, gathered out of Master Digbies [Everard Digby] Booke of the Art of Swimming, and translated into English for the better instruction of those who understand not the Latin tongue of 1595.

As the quotation from Isaiah testifies, early swimmers used the breaststroke. The "overarm" stroke was considered effective only over short distances. In 1902, however, JA Jarvis wrote: "I am firmly convinced that the present records at all distances will be wiped out and fresh ones put in their place by 'trudgers'." Trudgers were practitioners of the trudgen (or trudgeon), a stroke introduced into Britain by John Trudgen, who had been taught it by the natives of Buenos Aires in 1863. In the same year that Jarvis made his prediction, however, R Cavill, an Australian, demonstrated the front crawl, and trudging vanished forever.

The next major improvement came with the invention of the butterfly stroke by the German, Eric Rademacher, in 1926. Nobody took much notice, however, until 1933, when an American, Henry Myers, used it as a means of legal cheating in breaststroke races. It took the authorities until 1953 before the laws were sorted out and butterfly was recognised as a distinct stroke.

More dates: 1377: first appearance of word "swymmynge"; 1970: rules of water polo drafted; 1742: England's first indoor pool opened; 1961: Channel swum both ways without stopping; 1962: Channel swum underwater; 1981: first triple-crossing of the Channel.

Useless fact: more people have climbed Everest than have swum the Channel.