More on swimming today (we promise we’ll post some gems from our books about diving and boxing in honor of the Olympics soon)! Thomas A.P. van Leeuwen’s The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool provides a thorough (and often hilarious) account of the history of swimming and the swimming pool. Here is an excerpt about dry-swimming and the history of the breaststroke:
Most instruction manuals…promoted the use of swimming machines of various degrees of impracticability that could be used in the water as life-saving devices, or on shore as dry-swimming instruction apparatus. Of the latter, the majority consisted of contraptions based on the technique of the frog. The leg action was often imitated by pupils lying on their bellies on a table or chair at the same time that they watched pictures of frogs, or the live frogs themselves kept in a jar or a tub. A hilarious scene in Shadwell’s Virtuoso (1676) adumbrates the later practices. The eccentric Lord Nicholas Gimcrack is dry-training in his study and his wife reports what she sees… “He has a frog in a bowl of water, tied with a pack-thread by the loins, which pack-thread Sir Nicholas holds in his teeth, lying upon his belly on a table; and as the frog strikes, he strikes, and his swimming master stands by him, to tell him when he does well or ill.” When asked if he had ever tried out the stroke in the water, Sir Nicholas replies: “No Sir, but I swim most exquisitely on land. I content myself with the Speculative part of swimming, I care not for the Practick. I seldom bring anything to use, ’tis not my way.”
Breaststroke was the technique most widely taught. Although the leg action was derived from the frog’s, the arm movement had to be invented (probably mirroring the movement of the legs), since frogs hardly use their forelimbs in swimming. The breaststroke was popular with the military because it was a symmetrical, well-balanced action that allowed both the head and the marching kit and rifle, strapped high on the back, to stay above the water. The “Natateur-le-Chevalier” (1859) was an ingeniously recycled merry-go-round designed to teach French army men the breaststroke with an efficiency that Frederick Taylor would have envied.