Monster from the deep

7th January 2000 at 00:00
(Photograph) - What's the story?

How did humans learn to swim? Most children's first attempt is the doggy paddle, and it's likely that our ancestors took to the water in imitation of animals. Later on, the leg thrusts of a frog were copied in the breaststroke, and the undulating motion of a dolphin inspired the butterfly stroke in the 1930s.

The Greeks and Romans were keen swimmers, and swimming became part of the school curriculum in Japan in the early 1600s. But the sport didn't develop in this country until the 1830s when the first swimming pools were built in London and the sedate breaststroke was the favoured means of propulsion.

Competitive swimming soon followed, and in 1844 two native Americans, Flying Gull and Tobacco, came to race in London and shocked the British swimming establishment with their unusual overarm action. "Totally un-European" objected The Times, describing how both men would "lash the water violently with their arms like the sails of a windmill". It was an early version of the front crawl, which eventually revolutionised speed swimming. Before it did so, the side stroke and then the Trudgen - a hybrid of the breaststroke kick and the front crawl - had become popular. They had both been developed by indigenous people in Australia and South Africa who, like the native Americans and South Sea Islanders, were able swimmers long before the rest of us.

In sports involving running and jumping, gravity is the force to be reckoned with. But the swimmer, already buoyant, has a mass of water to impede his or her progress.

As this photograph shows, every effort to move the body through the water also produces drag. The water in front of the swimmer - Raymond Brown a finalist at the 1989 US college championships - is calm and unruffled but he leaves turbulence in his wake. The key to moving fast through water - and the holy grail of hydrodynamics - is to maximise power while minimising drag.

Advances in technique, diet and training have brought records tumbling down. Johnny Weissmuller, double Olympic champion of the 1920s who also starred as Tarzan, could be beaten by a teenage girl today.

In the search for speed, a few swimmers have used drugs to gain an unfair advantage. But most prefer "shaving down" as a legal means of enhancing performance. By freezing the motion in an image, photography can capture the flow of water over the swimmer's smooth skin, creating a sheen that reflects and refracts the light, distorting the appearance of his streamlined torso - but projecting a sense of the immense physical power needed to cut through the water.

Competitive swimmers spend hours every day honing their action and physique. Yet in a hundredth of a second, the time it took to make this image, a race can be won or lost. By contrast for photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, who took this shot, technique will always come second to intuition. "As a photographer the most important thing is to have a vision, to have an emotional feeling, to care about what you are photographing and to have something already there in your heart, in your eye," he said.

Web links (news, statistics, shopping and chat) (site for aquaphobics) www-rohan.sdsu.edudeptcoachsciswimmingindex.htm (for research and information on drugs, technique, training, diet) (general, user-friendly site)

Photograph by: Heinz Kluetmeier

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