The History of Butterfly: Then and Now

Apr 16, 2015; Mesa, AZ, USA; Michael Phelps wins the Men's 100 meter butterfly final in 52.92 seconds during the 2015 Arena Pro Swim Series at the Skyline Aquatic Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

By Proteeti Sinha, Swimming World College Intern.

Some swimmers say that if the worst pain you’ve ever experienced is a broken heart, then you haven’t swum a 200 fly.

The ­butterfly is typically considered to be the most challenging of all four strokes – it demands endurance, skill and synchronicity. Contrary to popular belief, the peak speed reached in butterfly is actually faster than freestyle. The double arm pulling action has great propulsive potential, and when combined with the downbeat of the kick, is faster than the single-arm pull in freestyle.

Spanning over two decades, the story of how butterfly came to be involves three things that at first glance do not appear to be related: a fish, the Manhattan Project and arthritis.

In the Beginning

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 15: Chad le Clos during the finals session 100m butterfly semi final on day 6 of the SA National Aquatic Championships and Olympic Trials on April 15 , 2016 at the Kings Park Aquatic Center pool in Durban, South Africa. Photo Credit / Anesh Debiky/Swim SA

Photo Courtesy: Anesh Debiky/Swimming South Africa

Butterfly evolved from an effort to swim faster breaststroke. No single person is credited with the formation of the stroke. Rather, it is attributed to multiple people, all of whom tried to use above-the-water recovery while swimming breaststroke. Officially, the International Swimming Hall of Fame recognizes Sydney Cavill of Australia as the original creator of the stroke.

Butterfly Then

100-breaststroke-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In late 1933, Henry Myers swam a version of the breaststroke-butterfly at the Brooklyn Central YMCA. David Armbruster, who was the swimming coach at the University of Iowa, formulated a method to bring the arms forward out of the water while swimming breaststroke in 1934. In 1935, a swimmer from the University of Iowa (a student of Armbruster), Jack Sieg, developed a kicking technique that is an earlier version of today’s dolphin kick. Together, Armbruster and Sieg discovered that the combination of the kick and arm stroke, you have a faster and more streamlined stroke.

By another account, physicist Volney C. Wilson is credited with an early form of the butterfly kick. In Richard Rhodes’ book The Making of the Atom Bomb, Wilson – who was a part of the Manhattan Project – is described as closely examining how fish swam. Mimicking this undulating motion, he used this new kick along with the breaststroke pull at the 1938 Olympic Trials. However, he was disqualified, as this particular mixture of breaststroke and butterfly was not legal per FINA regulations.

In 1952, FINA decided to split the breaststroke and butterfly into autonomous strokes. The formal butterfly events were first contested at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.

Modern Butterfly

Photo Courtesy: Aidan Cho

While he was not the first to use the mixed butterfly-breaststroke, Jiro Nagasawa of Japan is credited with the modern butterfly stroke. Nagasawa’s story is unique. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he finished sixth in the 200 breast due to arthritis in both his knees. Because of this struggle with arthritis, he changed his breaststroke kick to the dolphin kick, which was far more powerful. By 1956, Nagasawa had set five world records in the 200m and 220y butterfly. He is also credited with introducing this stroke to Japan and Asia.

The IMplications

Before butterfly became a FINA-ratified stroke, IM races had just three strokes and were only three or six pool lengths. At the time, the race was known as “three-stroke medley”. In the 1950s, the butterfly leg was added to the IM, thus changing the events to the modern 200 and 400 IM races.

When FINA first included the stroke, the men swam the 200 butterfly while the women swam the 100 butterfly. Today, both men and women swim the 50, 100 and 200 butterfly at meets across the world.

Did you learn something new? Tag a butterflyer in the comments!

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

50 comments

  1. Eney Jones

    My dad Burwell Jones still holds the World Record in the 150 IM ( before butterfly)

    • Scott Vank

      Eney I wish they swim had that event 😂

    • Eney Jones

      Scott Vank do it now!

    • Eney Jones

      Personally, I’d like to leave out breaststroke

    • Scott Vank

      Eney 150 w/ no freestyle 😂😂😂🚫🏊‍♂️

      • avatar
        Meena

        Interesting! Learnt quite a lot and so well written as always!

    • avatar
      Madhura

      This is wonderful!

    • avatar
      Dalia Sen

      Wonderfully expressed your thoughts…so well written….Go ahead with your lovely ideas..

    • avatar
      Dalia Sen

      Wonderfully expressed your thoughts…so well written….Go ahead with your lovely ideas..

    • avatar
      Proteeti Sinha

      That is so cool!

  2. Dani Navarrete

    Very interesting information!!! Nice job Proteeti!!

  3. Stu Marvin

    How about John Higgins? He was 4th in the 200 breaststroke at the 36 Olympics using butterfly arms. He also set the world 100 meter breaststroke record using the same stroke. He told me once that he could keep the stroke going for about 175 meters before having to return to normal breaststroke. A legend!!

    • Fred Mayer

      Stu Marvin and Herb Kane (hope I got his last name correct).

  4. Allan Kopel

    Seems like Dr Bill Yorzyk and Coach Jack Nelson warrant mention for their butterfly in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for Team USA.

    • avatar
      Jeff Allen

      Seems like coach Charles Silvia Ana Bill Yorzyk have been left out.

  5. Anne Emaus

    One of the swim dad’s I knew as a swimmer swam the fly with the breaststroke kick as it was the way in his younger years! We all tried it, not an easy feat!

  6. avatar
    Smita Divgikar

    Informative article. In India, we swam Butterfly with fly arms and breaststroke kick(which was called orthodox kick butterfly) till 1968

  7. avatar
    Saikat Ganguly

    Excellent

  8. avatar
    Anonymous

    Interesting information, great article!

  9. avatar
    Anonymous

    Intriguing read…keep them coming Proteeti !!

  10. avatar
    Simi Haldar

    Intriguing read…keep them coming Proteeti !!

  11. avatar
    Pradeep Divgikar

    Wonderful Quote to start this very informative and we’ll researched article on the evolution of the Butterfly Stroke. Keep them coming dear Proteeti. You have a flair for writing and swimming is a sport you excelled. A combination of the two is what makes your articles so riveting. Cheers! Way to Go!

  12. avatar
    Arnab Majumdar

    Well written and informative

    Keep it up

  13. avatar
    Simrita J

    For a person who can swim neither breaststroke nor butterfly, it was a very interesting article! Keep it going!!

  14. avatar
    Anit Kumar Basu

    Informative. Keep up your good work.

  15. avatar
    Anit Kumar Basu

    Nice article and very informative also.

  16. avatar
    Samrat Dasgupta

    Amazing article…Keep updating us on such trivia

    – Samrat

  17. avatar
    Ananya G

    Wow! This was an interesting read!
    Keep it up Pro

  18. avatar
    Shohini

    Learnt so much about the evolution of butterfly! Keep up the good work Proteeti

  19. avatar
    Anonymous

    Very well written Pro…. though I have been swimming for the last 40 years, I’ve never attempted butterfly

  20. avatar
    Jayati

    So much to learn from your thoroughly researched and practised article…great job Proteeti

  21. avatar
    Ananya Biswas

    Don’t know anything about swimming. But how nicely you have explained everything. Good work. Keep it up!

  22. avatar
    Angana

    My daughter tells me Butterfly is way more difficult than any other stroke. Being a virtually non swimmer I have never really appreciated her words ( or feelings !). Thanks for opening my eyes.

  23. avatar
    Kuhu Basu

    Very informative and interesting read.

  24. Nitza Lebron

    Jose Luis Davila Gustavo Davila

  25. avatar
    Rich Davis

    1938 or did you mean 1948 Olympic Trials?

  26. avatar
    Mandira

    Wonderful exposition of a subject even swimmers didn’t know much about .
    I am much wiser now .