A quick google of ‘scientific swimming’ will elicit a stream of results from companies offering scientific analysis of your swimming technique for large quantities of money. When I discovered this I was frustrated, not because of the services being offered or the money being coined, but because this was not the kind of results I was searching for.
Having heard the intriguing term ‘scientific swimming’ mentioned in an article from the 1800s, I went in search of illumination. We rely on Google for many things, but for the research of this article I was equal parts frustrated and satisfied to discover that I would have to rely on good old fashioned books for my sources. A book published in 1816 provided me with the a starting point, and others published throughout the late nineteenth century developed the idea further, by the 1890s the true definition of scientific swimming was not that of a scientific approach to swimming, but instead is the root of the sport we now know as synchronised swimming.
The organised and elaborate art of synchronized swimming is ubiquitous, but it began life as ‘scientific’; ‘ornamental’ or ‘fancy’ swimming, primarily as a way to entertain crowds during swimming galas. At the start of the nineteenth century, the ability to swim was not as common as it is now, so spectators were more easily impressed. Tricks which are viewed today as simple and essential skills for children, such as treading water and sculling, were used to prompt considerable amusement at events.
The earliest mention of scientific swimming I’ve found, from the modest amount of research I’ve done exploring the term, was in a book published with the impressively long title: Scientific Swimming; Being a Series of Practical Instructions, on an Original and Progressive Plan, by which the Art of Swimming May be Readily Attained, with Every Advantage of Power in the Water. It proclaims to teach the art in seven simple lessons – right at the end it mentions ‘sportive or playful swimming’, actions such as ‘spinning’; ‘rolling’ and ‘quadruped swimming’ become known as forms of scientific swimming in later publications.
As the years progress, scientific swimming appears to become more and more playful; a book from 1893 teaches how to eat a Victoria sponge underwater, to smoke a pipe whilst doing breastroke and how to escape from a burlap sack when submerged (the illustrations which accompany the instructions make it all the better).
These parlour-trick style displays were less strenuous than the racing at a gala, as they required neither strength nor speed to be done successfully, thus scientific swimming appears to have been a sport for ‘older’ gentlemen or those simply not good enough to race. This made it an activity deemed appropriate for women to pursue—although there were some prominent Victorian female competitors, it was still an unusual activity for women—and so by the 1920s and 30s, had developed from parlour-trick style sport to a largely all-female sport, known first as water ballet and eventually became synchronised swimming, a term we recognise today. The tricks had changed quite considerably by this point: no more smoking a pipe whilst swimming or eating cake underwater. Synchronised swimming became increasingly technical and demanding, until it was advanced enough to be deemed an olympic sport in 1985. Despite men being pivotal at its inception, synchronised swimming is an inaccessible sport for men now. They cannot compete in the Olympics, and were only permitted to compete in the FINA World Aquatics Championships as recently as 2015. It seems ridiculous that there are still any sports in which one sex is barred from participation, I hope to see it in the 2020 Olympic games.
When tracing back sports such as this, we discover not just the bare facts but a social history. Sports are inseparable from society, and usually accurately reflect the restrictions and prejudices active within a culture just as well as the playful and fun sides. Scientific swimming is an interesting example of this, with a few plot twists along the way it went from an all-male sport, to an all-female sport. Regardless of the sports social significance, I’m tempted to get a group of friends together to have a go at eating cake underwater – or develop modern equivalents: competitive Tinder swiping whilst doing backstroke, anyone?