History of Swimming

- by International Life Saving Federation

Bathing and swimming have always been important activities among men and animals. Animals generally swim instinctively, while man has lost this instinct. He thus has to start from scratch and it is not always plain sailing. In ancient times man recognised this and lifesaving was always considered as a skill for personal survival in an emergency situation and if possible for saving others as well. Lifesaving can thus not be separated from swimming. Therefore, we will give a concise overview of the history of swimming, but with particular attention to lifesaving.


Swimming is a very old activity. Swimmers can be seen in hieroglyphs from 3,000 BC. The purpose and usefulness given to swimming and bathing varied from culture to culture. Some peoples found that bathing and swimming was a way of achieving extreme cleanliness, purify and inner cleanliness. Only when he or she had been cleansed of all impurities by the water was he or she considered worthy to enter a holy place. This phenomenon can still be witnessed in some religions.


While bathing was a religious duty, swimming was rather more of a useful skill. It was needed for crossing waters when there was no bridge or boat.


People were sometimes forced to swim by necessity in order to escape the forces of nature. Even at that time it was known that the use of animal skins or jars filled with air made the art of swimming easier.


With the Babylonians, and later on with the Greeks, there was the religious conviction that the spirit of a dead person would not come to rest if her died by drowning. This induced them to teach as many people as possible how to swim.


More so than with the Greeks, bathing and swimming was held in high esteem by the Romans. In addition to the many thermal baths the Romans had some very large bathing areas. They were initially only visited by the aristocratic and rich citizens of Rome. Later on there would be popular rushed to there bathing areas, comparable to the rushes to our coastal resorts today.


The Romans found that bathing and swimming in particular had considerable medical significance. It was a good way of combating insomnia for example.


In Medieval times there was also talk of a bathing culture. The bath houses however were considered as pools of sin and iniquity. Therefore self-respecting people were not seen there. Bathing and swimming in rivers and the sea was strictly prohibited in some countries. All the possible positive aspects of bathing and swimming, in particular hygiene, medical and religious aspects did not counteract the absolute moral taboo. It is then hardly surprising that the ancient bathing culture fell to a low point.


Friedrick Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) complain about the fact that swimming was banned in various Berling schools. Together with him, many Physical Education teachers again fostered swimming. Guts Muts wrote that swimming was very useful and that it could be considered as a means of survival and rescue from water hazards. The body was cleansed through swimming and the muscles were strengthened. He thus added practical and functional aspects to the religious and medical aspects of swimming. i.e. in one way or another to protect oneself or others against drowning in the event of an emergency.


Personal survival is considered as part of lifesaving swimming. Personal survival is part of the preventive actions in a drowning accident. By this is meant being able to save yourself in difficult situations in water without the help of others, or while awaiting the help of others. Survival swimming is endeavouring to survive when in the water involuntarily or when in difficulties while swimming. That a person might have to save himself could be a consequences of:

  • lack of caution (for example, swimming out too far and finding it difficult to get back, falling out of a boat)
  • ignorance (for example, being carried away by a strong current)
  • unforeseen circumstances (for example, cramp)

Survival swimming is not new. Even in ancient peoples this form of swimming can be found, especially in the form of military training. Thus it was examined among the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians and other Eastern civilisations as to how far people could swim with animal skins filled with air.


Survival swimming saw a revival in the Second World War. The British and American navies were of the opinion that anyone who conducted war at sea (whether in ship, a submarine or an airplane) had to be trained to be able to survive at sea. Thus certain basic skills were included in their training programmes. These basic skills of personal survival were:

  • entering the water from a certain height
  • swimming underwater after a surface dive
  • adopting survival floating positions (with or without clothing)
  • survival swimming techniques (with or without clothes)
  • how to deal with cramp 

Over the last decades especially a great interest in survival swimming has emerged. Many people spend their free time close to or on the water. Some of them get into difficulties far from the water’s edge, panic and die from drowning that could have been avoided if they had used survival techniques.