Over hundreds, even thousands, of years, humans have perfected the art of swimming and figured out the fastest way to move through the water, leaving us with the four competitive strokes: Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
But the strokes we see the pros doing today have come a long way from their humble – and slow – beginnings.
Who invented butterfly? Why are there only four competitive strokes? Can just anyone make up a stroke these days? Let’s dive into the history of each swim stroke and how they came to be the official racing lineup for swimmers around the world.
Swimming in Ancient Civilizations
Long before the days of Michael Phelps, humans were getting after it in the water.
Art in an Egyptian tomb from 2,000 B.C. shows people swimming. And various Assyrian stone carvings show an early form of modern-day breaststroke.
In Pompeii, mosaics show what looks like doggie paddle.
That’s just art, but what about racing? The Japanese are credited with holding some of the first swimming races, as early as 36 B.C.!
And, of course, we can also assume that people swam for leisure, fun and to keep cool on hot days.
Needless to say, swimming has been part of the human experience for millennia. And as time went on, people began to figure out the fastest ways to move through the water.
But what was the first “official” swim stroke? Take your guesses…
Breaststroke: The First Swim Stroke
It was breaststroke! In 1696, the book The Art of Swimming described an early form of head-up breaststroke. After the original French text was translated into English, this style of breaststroke became the most popular swim stroke in Europe for hundreds of years.
Breaststroke looked relatively similar to what we see in pools today: A wide, sweeping pull with the arms at the same time, followed by a ‘frog kick’ with both legs simultaneously. Between strokes, swimmers would glide for a few beats before their next pull.
Londoners began swimming competitively in earnest in the 1830s, and breaststroke dominated the lineup.
Captain Matthew Webb of England took breaststroke to the next level in 1875. That year, he made the first recorded crossing of the English Channel, and he swam the majority of the 21-mile swim breaststroke.
Breaststroke was contested at the Olympic Games for the first time in 1904, where male swimmers raced a 440-yard distance.
As you can probably imagine, we are not still swimming the breaststroke of the 1800s. The stroke has evolved as swimmers refined their speed and discovered what works best in the water.
Until 1987, swimmers had to keep their heads above water at all times while swimming breaststroke. That rule was eventually scrapped, and now swimmers can dunk their heads under between breaths.
In 2005, World Aquatics allowed swimmers to take one dolphin kick during each pull out as well.
The stroke might continue to change in the future, but we’ll just have to wait and see!
The Evolution of Freestyle (or Front Crawl)
Let’s rewind the clock a little bit, back to when breaststroke was in its infancy, and Europeans couldn’t get enough of it. Enter: Front crawl, or freestyle.
There’s some evidence of an over-arm stroke being used by ancient Greeks and Assyrians. And the use of front crawl-like strokes was also well documented among Native Americans, Pacific Island tribes and various African peoples.
These days though, freestyle is the most popular stroke worldwide. But it took Europeans a while to fully accept freestyle into their repertoires at first. This is due in part to Europe’s aversion to swimming during the pandemic-ridden Dark Ages.
It all started with side stroke.
In the 1840s, swimmers started to adopt the English side stroke instead of breaststroke. This stroke had a scissor kick and underwater arm recovery. It was said that when viewed from above, swimmers doing side stroke looked like they were running.
Eventually, this side stroke was modified to include over-water recovery with one arm, based on a side stroke technique used by aboriginal Australians.
For the next 40-some years, most races were done side stroke. But one race in 1844 cemented freestyle in the back of swimmers’ minds everywhere.
That year, two Native Americans, Flying Gull and Tobacco of the Ojibwe tribe, traveled to London to compete in a swim race.
When the race began, spectators were shocked at what they saw. Flying Gull and Tobacco’s strokes were described as “un-European.” One spectator said that the swimmers “thrashed the water violently with their arms, like sails on a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and forming grotesque antics.”
The two newcomers left a lasting impression on swimmers across the pond. Flying Gull swam across the 130-foot pool (that’s about 40 meters) in 30 seconds. But the Europeans weren’t quite ready to let go of breaststroke as their go-to stroke…yet.
On the sidelines, a few creative swimmers were still experimenting.
In the 1870s, Englishman John Trudgen debuted the Trudgen stroke, which took side stroke to the next level.
Swimming with his chest flat and head out of the water, Trudgen alternated swinging each arm over the water, adding a horizontal breaststroke kick to each stroke cycle. The stroke was very jerky, but was great over short distances.
Around this time, some swimmers began experimenting with a variation of a scissor kick that would likely look similar to the flutter kick we use today.
At the 1902 International Championships, Australian swimmer Richmond Cavill debuted a new take on the stroke based on what he saw natives of the Solomon Islands doing. Dubbed the Australian Crawl, this stroke was faster and more efficient than the Trudgen, due mostly to the up-and-down kick, which was probably similar to a flutter kick.
Cavill set a new world record with this stroke, swimming 100 yards in 58.4 seconds. Not bad!
American Charles Daniels improved Cavill’s stroke further, adding a six-beat kick (that’s three kicks for each arm stroke), and the American Crawl was born.
In the last century, freestyle has remained a dominant stroke in both racing and training. Side stroke is still around too, but it’s mostly used in life saving and military training exercises. You won’t see it at the Olympics.
Europeans were definitely late to the party on freestyle, but they came around eventually, and these days Europeans are some of the most dominant freestyle swimmers.
Is it Freestyle or Front Crawl?
Before we move on, we have to address the freestyle versus front crawl debate.
Why is the 50 freestyle not called the 50 front crawl? Are freestyle and front crawl the same thing? It comes down to rules.
Technically, in a freestyle race, you can swim any legal stroke as long as you do that same stroke for the whole race. So, you could swim breaststroke or butterfly in a 50 free and not get disqualified.
Front crawl could be considered the official name for what most of us call freestyle, but it really depends on who you ask. Some people call it freestyle, and some people call it front crawl. Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts!
Next up in our timeline, we have backstroke.
Men raced backstroke for the first time in the Olympic Games in 1900. For women, though, backstroke wasn’t added to the racing lineup until 1924.
Initially, swimmers did backstroke with a breaststroke kick and moved their arms at the same time. Eventually, the stroke evolved into what we see today: One arm stroke at a time, plus a flutter kick and lots of rotation from side to side.
In the 1930s, Australian swimmers started experimenting with bending their arms during the underwater portion of the stroke, and found that it helped them swim faster! At the time, most swimmers swam with a straight arm catch and pull.
Other athletes quickly adopted what the Aussies were doing, and bent arm pulls became the norm, not just in backstroke but in all four competitive strokes. We call this Early Vertical Forearm!
Backstroke is the only stroke where swimmers start in the water instead of diving off the blocks. They hop in, place their feet on the wall, grab onto special handles, and explode off the wall backwards and enter the water in streamline.
Over the years, backstroke rules have changed quite a bit.
Until 1988, backstrokers could kick underwater as far as they wanted before they started swimming. But after American David Berkoff kicked a whopping 35 meters underwater on the first length of the 100 back at the 1988 Olympics, World Aquatics decided to impose a limit of just 10 meters underwater. These days, swimmers can go no more than 15 meters underwater before popping up, or they could get disqualified.
In 1991, backstrokers were allowed to do flip turns when changing directions, which was a huge gamechanger.
And in 2022, World Aquatics changed the backstroke rules yet again, allowing swimmers to fully submerge for the final five meters of their race. In the past, at least one part of the body had to be out of the water to avoid getting disqualified.
From Breaststroke to Butterfly
Last but not least is butterfly.
If you’ve ever tried to swim butterfly, you know: It’s arguably the toughest stroke of the four. It uses every muscle in the body and can leave you totally gassed if you aren’t in shape for it.
It turns out that butterfly got its start as a variation of breaststroke!
In the 1930s, swimmers and coaches started experimenting with breaststroke technique, and discovered that it was faster if the swimmer recovered their arms over the water, instead of powering them forward underwater.
In this early phase, swimmers still did the breaststroke ‘frog kick.’
In 1933, American swimmer Henry Myers was the first to use this new stroke technique in breaststroke competition, much to the officials’ confusion. He argued that his stroke still fell within the breaststroke rules at the time, and so the butterfly trend was born.
For the next 20 years or so, breaststrokers raced with the double arm, overwater recovery and a breaststroke frog kick. But people continued to experiment with new ways to make breaststroke faster.
In the mid 1930s, American swim coach David Armbruster added a dolphin kick to the over-water recovery, which would turn out to be a game changer.
And in 1945, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Japanese swimmer Jiro Nagasawa was the first swimmer to use the butterfly arms and dolphin kick in competition. He set multiple butterfly world records during his career!
Finally, in 1952, World Aquatics made butterfly an official stroke category. Butterfly was contested for the first time in the Olympic Games in 1956. And we haven’t looked back since!
So, which stroke is the hardest? You tell us! If you want to learn how to swim all four strokes or just improve your technique and speed, download the MySwimPro app and start your very own personalized Training Plan.
- Today in History: Captain Matthew Webb First Person to Swim English Channel in 1875: Swimming World Magazine
- The Art of Swimming Illustrated by Proper Figures: Flashbak
- Trudgen Stroke: Wikipedia
- A History of Crawl Stroke to the 1960s: An Australian Perspective: Swimming Science Bulletin
- Swimming – Strokes: Britannica
- The Development of Modern Stroke: The Washington Post
- Front Crawl: Wikipedia
- Swimming Has Never Been “White”: The Origins of The Freestyle: The Black Swimming Association
- How Charles Daniels Turned American Swimming From Joke to Juggernaut: St. Louis Public Radio
- The Murky History of the Butterfly Stroke: The New Yorker
- The Evolution of Backstroke: Swimming World Magazine
- Backstroke: Wikipedia
- USA Swimming Updates Rules on Backstroke Finishes to Comply with World Aquatics World Aquatics: Swim Swam