Swimming in Mythology and History

Cave of swimmers
Photo Courtesy: WikiMedia Cave of the Swimmers in Egypt

By Zach Breeding, Swimming World College Intern

All competitive swimmers can trace their favorite (or least favorite) sports roots back to the early 19th century in Great Britain with the first indoor swimming pool being built in 1828. What was then called the National Swimming Society began holding regular competitions by the end of the next decade, with the sport making its first Olympic appearance over 50 years later in 1896.

Since these humble beginnings swimming has come a long way. The National Swimming Society has evolved into simply British Swimming, competitive swim teams can be found in most cities, and swimming is the most popular sport to watch in the Olympics year after year. However, the beginnings of swimming can be traced back much further than 1828 to years when our heroes only had one name and the monsters were more than distance sets. This history, which I will get into shortly, confirms what all swimmers already knew. That our sport is easily the most impressive sport, and by far the best one.


Photo Courtesy: WikiMedia Members of the Brighton swim club C. 1863

Anyone familiar with ancient history and mythology knows that water often plays an adverse role, this is especially so in mythology. The best demonstration of this is in characters like Charon, whose job it is to ferry people across waters that one couldn’t cross on their own, and the countless stories of sirens in the oceans that sailors were so often warned to avoid. However, for the few characters that did brave the waters there were great rewards and they became legends. First a lesser known example, Leander.

Leander was a young Greek man from Abydus, a small city on a strait of water called the Hellespont. While at a festival he meets a young lady named Hero and instantly falls madly in love. But as it always goes with ancient myths they aren’t allowed to precede with their relationship due to overbearing parents and the gods. So, to try and convince Hero to be his lover despite the risk of divine punishment, Leander swims across the strait. Obviously impressed with his swimming prowess, Hero relents and the two become lovers. That is until a storm causes Leander to lose his way while swimming across the strait to see Hero, and subsequently drown.

Across Europe, in Scandinavia, another legend used his swimming abilities to even greater effect. In the story of Beowulf, it becomes necessary for the hero to swim downwards into an uncharted lake wearing a full suit of armor in order to find the mother of Grendel, a previously slayed monster. Beowulf accomplishes this feat with little challenge and even manages to swim back up from the bottom of this trench like lake carrying the monsters head and a new sword. Once again impressing everyone with his radical swimming skills, Beowulf is made the king of his people. In this position he rules to a ripe old age, before mutually dying with a dragon he’d gotten into a disagreement with.

The actual history is a bit spottier and much less epic. However, it still serves the purpose set out for with this article of historically confirming swimming as the best sport ever. Knights, who in the middle ages were just a small step below nobility, were required to master the art of swimming with armor on as one of their seven agilities, I think the best modern comparison to this would be swimming with tennis shoes and sweatshirts on. Nowhere in the code of chivalry are other modern sports, which would contend for “Best Sport Ever,” mentioned.

A bit later in history during the enlightenment we are presented with another piece of evidence. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest minds to have ever existed used some of his spare time to draw sketches of people swimming. In a furious search of Google and Wikipedia I was able to find no evidence of da Vinci ever sketching those in the act of Football, Baseball, or even Soccer for that matter. If this doesn’t confirm the fact that swimming is the greatest sport of all time, then absolutely nothing will.

da Vinci Lifebelt

Photo Courtesy: WikiMedia Da Vinci Lifebelt Sketch

Swimmers are able to trace our glorious roots not just back to Brits wearing top hats in the water, but to legends of both story and those who have inspired story. We were the subject with which a great mind spent his time thinking. and as is evidenced by our predecessors, we can slay even the toughest of monsters.

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

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