Fifth Grader Researches the Question: How Has Swimming Changed?

Amanda Zheng, an 11-year-old fifth grader, is from Thomas P. Hughes elementary school in Berkeley Heights, N.J. She also is a competitive swimmer at Berkeley Aquatic Club under Jim Wood, and her coach, Tristan Formon. Amanda is also a member of New Jersey Youth Symphony where she plays the flute.

When you go to swimming practice, or a swimming meet, do you ever take a moment to think about how the sport of swimming became what it is today? One day I began to wonder how swimming has changed throughout the years. This made me think about what swimming was like when it was first considered a sport. How many changes did swimming go through before it resembled swimming today?

Through my research, which included an enlightening interview with Olympic gold medalist (2000) Mrs. B.J. Bedford Miller, and New Jersey Swimming General Chairman Mr. Tristan Formon, I discovered that many changes were made by the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA, International Swimming Federation). FINA helped swimming become what is today. In this article, I will explain many of these changes.

Butterfly became a stroke:
In 1952, the butterfly became recognized as a separate stroke. Prior to this change, swimmers swimming breaststroke would bring their hands above the water, therefore swimming butterfly. Then FINA decided to make this into a separate stroke. The next year (1953) FINA added butterfly to the Individual Medley (IM).

Freestyle flip-turn:
In 1965, the modern freestyle flip turn replaced the original older turn. In the past, the swimmers were required to touch the wall and then execute the original turn. Now in the modern flip turn, swimmers flip while approaching the wall; therefore cutting crucial seconds off their times. This change made many swimmers go much faster, because the swimmers no longer had to stop and flip.

Goggles and Swimming caps:
In the early 1960s and 1970s, goggles and caps were invented, and people began using them. It took a while for swimmers to get accustomed to using caps and goggles, and many people initially didn't like them. Thomas Burgress was one of the first swimmers who wore goggles. He wore them while swimming the English Channel in 1911. The original, older caps didn't resemble the caps worn today. The caps were mostly worn for fashion and to keep the swimmer's hair dry, not for speed. Now most pools require girls and boys with long hair to wear caps to prevent their hair from clogging the filter. Most swimmers now wear caps to improve their speed. The caps reduce the drag that the swimmer's hair would have made. Most swimmers also wear goggles while swimming, because they keep water out of their eyes and help them see where the swimmer is going.

Underwater limitations:
In the 1988 Olympics, David Berkoff became famous for his “Berkoff Blast-off” when he traveled 32m underwater. In 1989, probably as a result of the “Berkoff Blast-off, the 10m-backstroke underwater limit change occurred. Before that, there was no limit to how long the swimmers could stay underwater. In 1991 the rule changed from 10m to 15m underwater.

As a side note, in January of 1998, FINA set 15m as the underwater limit for butterfly and freestyle, just like they did with backstroke. The change went into effect during March of 1998. This change was extremely difficult for some swimmers whose race strategy circled around their underwater kicks.

Backstroke flip-turn:
In 1991, FINA changed the way that swimmers are required to perform backstroke turns. Before the change, swimmers were required to touch the wall while they were still on their back. Then the swimmer would have to turn around in the other direction and push off again. Some swimmers still do this turn during the backstroke to breaststroke turn in the IM. It's often referenced as the ” bucket turn”. Then FINA changed the rule to the current backstroke flip turn. Now swimmers are allowed to roll over onto their front, take a stroke, and complete a freestyle flip turn. This allows swimmers to go much faster, because they don't have to stop to turn; they could flip instantly.

Breaststroke pullout:
In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kosuke Kitajima from Japan did multiple dolphin kicks off all of his walls in the 100m and 200m breaststroke, in which he beat USA's Brendan Hansen, and won both races. It was obvious that he should have been disqualified, but FINA decided to make one dolphin kick in each pullout acceptable.

This was extremely frustrating for many Americans watching the Athens Olympics because Kosuke Kitajima obviously beat Brendan Hansen because of the dolphin kicks he did off of the walls. He didn't get disqualified for them even though he should have been.

Super suit ban:
There was a huge deal about the FINA suit ban in 2009. FINA banned the super suits in 2009, because world records were being broken almost every day with these suits. Now, the suits for women can no longer extend below the knee, or past the shoulder. The men's suits are required to go from the waist to the knee. Many swimmers liked the suits because they enabled the swimmer to go much faster by just wearing the suit. Hard work in practice didn't seem significant. The material in the suit would make the swimmers very buoyant in the water.

With the suits, the swimmers would practically be gliding through the water. But the argument was that the swimmer should be making all of these world records, and times, not the suits. After FINA changed the rule, some people thought that no more records could be broken without the help of the super suits, but world records are still being broken today, and swimmers are still getting faster. This shows us that it is not the rules, or equipment that is making the swimmers faster, it is the athletes themselves. Hard work and training is what improves athletic ability.

The Popularity of Swimming:
There are some other changes that cannot be associated with dates. The popularity of swimming has increased since the beginning of swimming mainly because of the swimmers. B.J. Bedford Miller, a well-known American swimmer, who dyed her hair red, white and blue for her Olympic appearances. Ryan Lochte is the one of the first athletes that has his own TV show. Michael Phelps is considered one of the greatest athletes in the world. He was awarded 22 medals in the Olympics and 18 of them are gold medals. All of these helped increase the popularity of swimming.

After completing my research, I wonder, why did FINA change these rules at all? Why couldn't they just leave the rules the way they were? I do think it was because these changes were made to make the sport of swimming more efficient, and fair. These changes allowed swimmers to improve their times dramatically. There is no doubt that without these changes, we would swim very differently than we do today.

1. “FINA Changes Rules.”, Swimming World, Sept. 2005, Vol.46, Issue 9 P.24.
2. Formon, Tristan, General Chairman of NJ Swimming, Personal interview. 20 May 2013.
3. Geehr, Carly, What Changes to the Rules Have Occurred in Swimming Events Since the Last Olympics? The Huffington Post. (, 06 Aug. 2012.
4. Hyman, Misty, MYSTYFLY, Swimming world & Junior Swimmer, Nov. 2002, Vol. 43, Issue 11, P.18.
5. B.J. Bedford-Miller, “Swimming Changes”, Private e-mail interview, 20 May 2013.
6. “U.S. Masters Swimming Discussion Forums.”, (

Special thanks to Amanda Zheng for sending us her research project. We LOVE hearing about the youth of our sport really becoming “students of the game” and learning more about the incredible sport of swimming.

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