Let’s think about the four strokes in swimming for a moment. There’s freestyle, which originated from the crawl, that has been engineered to be the fastest way a person can move through the water. Backstroke is basically the same concept as freestyle except on our backs. These two strokes make sense as to why they were created, but what about fly and breast? Where did we get these unique and challenging techniques from? In this article, we are going to explore where the fly and breast stroke originated from, and through this discovery hopefully learn something about swimming that may have been unknown previously.
The first instance of swimming in historical records was found to be around 2,000 BC. Competitive swimming showed up in historical documents as early as 36 B.C., with the Japanese holding the first known swimming races.
The English have been credited as the first society to develop swimming as a sport, but we must fast forward ahead to more modern times to discover the origins of breast and fly.
When we learn breaststroke as a young kid we are taught that it is the frog stroke. You make big circles with your legs and arms just like a frog. It isn’t hard to imagine that the breaststroke was created with this in mind, and records show that stone age people started using the breaststroke to propel through the water quicker. The breaststroke was not as taxing as the freestyle and allowed for easy and natural movement through the water.
Not much is known about the breaststroke from this point until modern times, so let’s pick up on the history of the stroke from when it was first competitively performed.
The first time the world saw breaststroke in Olympic competition was in 1904 at the St. Louis Games. In 1928, a study done by David Armbruster showed that that bringing the arms forward under the water slowed the swimmer down considerably. The solution to this problem was to bring the hands and arms over the water to the starting position.
Until the 1950’s, the breaststroke was the only stroke with a required style. However, many swimmers were taking advantage of the high speeds that can be achieved when swimming all underwater. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Masaru Furukawa from Japan won the gold medal in the breaststroke by swimming all but 5 meters underwater for the first 3 laps. FINA saw this as an issue due to the amount of people passing out from lack of oxygen, and decided change the rules to limit how far a swimmer can go underwater.
A couple more rule changes and an added dolphin kick later and we have arrived at the modern day breaststroke. Breast is a highly technical stroke, which is why I believe it will be the most dynamic in the upcoming future of swimming.
Interestingly enough, butterfly evolved from breaststroke.
In 1934, David Armbruster, the coach at University of Iowa, devised a double arm recovery over the water on the existing breaststroke style. These “butterfly” arms required more skill to be efficient and made the stroke inherently faster.
In 1935, Jack Sieg, a swimmer for the University of Iowa, developed the technique of kicking with both legs together on his side like a fish tail. He then started to perform that action with his legs facing down, perfecting what we know today as the dolphin kick. Sieg and Armbruster combined their two breakthrough developments to assemble the first butterfly stroke.
Sieg was the first person to utilize the new stroke, and swam a 100 yard butterfly in a time of 1:00.2.
Although, as it was called back then, “butterfly breaststroke”, was faster than traditional breaststroke, the dolphin kicks were still a violation of competitive rules. For the next 20 years, the beast breaststrokers used the butterfly arm recovery with a shortened breaststroke kick.
In the late 1950’s, the butterfly technique with dolphin kicks was legalized as a separate stroke for competitive competitions.
There is also a Japanese man, named Jiro Nagasawa, that is also often credited as the inventor of butterfly. Nagasawa was not the first person to swim the butterfly-breaststroke, but was one of the first to utilize the dolphin kick in the stroke. He introduced this stroke to Asia and Japan and was the first person to set a butterfly world record when the stroke was officially recognized by FINA.