The History of Swimming with Howard Means

Howard Means is the author or co-author of ten books, including a history of swimming titled Splash!: 10,000 Years of Swimming and 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. The latter book is being developed as a limited series by HBO. Prior to turning full-time to book-length works, Means was senior editor at Washingtonian magazine, an op-ed columnist for King Features Syndicate, a daily journalist, and in the distant past, a schoolteacher. He began swimming competitively when he was five years old, continued through college, then coached for seven years. Swimming continues to define his life: Pools, rivers, lakes, quarries, oceans are his natural medium. Writing Splash! was a labor of love.

In this interview, we discuss his book Splash! and the history of swimming and its cultural impact through the centuries. Enter the giveaway below to win a signed copy of Splash!



Greg: Can you tell me a little about your background? Why did you choose to write a history of swimming?

Howard: I always thought writing a book should be a journey of discovery, so I had intentionally chosen subjects about which I knew very little but had a deep interest: the Kent State shootings, Johnny Appleseed, Andrew Johnson’s first 45 days as president, and others. This book I thought would be different. I’ve been a swimmer all my life—as a competitor through college, as a coach and teacher for eight years after that, for fitness and sheer pleasure ever since. (And that’s a long ever since!) Why not write about something I actually knew about and loved? Well, I did, and it turned out to be a journey of discovery in all sorts of unanticipated and wonderful ways.

Greg: When and why did humans start swimming?

Howard: Impossible to know for sure, of course, but the first solid evidence of swimming are 8,000-year-old pictographs —cave paintings—first seen by Western eyes in 1933 at a place called Wadi Sura in the southwest Egyptian desert. Wadi Sura is a desolate place, but it has one other great distinction: As measured by the “aridity index,” it is also the driest spot on the planet. 

Start pulling on that string, and you end up in what’s known as the African Humid Period. About 12,000 years ago, the Earth wobbled on its axis and sent the rains that today we associate with Central Africa scudding northward, turning the Sahara for maybe 5,000 years into a very habitable place pock-marked with lakes and cut through with river systems. Those people doing the doggy-paddle on the cave walls at Wadi Sura were living in a Water Wonderland compared to the Great Sand Sea that covers the area today

Greg: How has the practice of swimming and the reasons for doing so changed over the ages?

Howard: Swimming is encoded in our biology in multiple ways. Basically, we’re all aquatic mammals almost to the moment of birth. Evolution argues that the first swimmers were simply returning to the sea from which our very distant ancestors emerged. Why did they do it? For access to an Omega-rich food source, to escape grassland fires, to get to the other side of rivers and see what was there. 

Almost certainly swimming began as a survival skill and morphed into a military one. Huge carved reliefs from nine centuries before the Christian era show Assyrian warriors using inflated animal skins to surprise their enemies. The Greeks turned swimming into a civic virtue. “A man is not learned until he can read, write, and swim,” Plato wrote. The Romans picked up on that and engineered magnificent baths and pools. Where we are today—swimming for competition, for community, for fitness, for the joy of exploring an almost weightless medium—is really a throwback to swimming’s Golden Age in ancient Greece and Rome.

Splash! author Howard Means, a book about the history of swimming

Greg: Most people associate swimming with exercise, competition or recreation. How does it connect to other aspects of society?

Howard: In all sorts of ways that constantly fascinated me: social norms, fashion, how we relate to nature, religious teachings and superstitions, sport and how we judge performance, climatological change (as in Wadi Sura), education, and not least of all integration and segregation. In America, interracial swimming, not interracial dining or dating, was the last taboo. In some ways, it still is.

Competitive swimming itself is an ongoing amalgamation of stroke techniques, training practices, pool engineering, starting-block and lane-divider technology refined to the nth degree, textiles (as in miracle-fiber racing suits), and so much more. That makes it almost impossible to compare times and championship swimmers across generations. Katie Ledecky’s world record for the women’s 1500-meter freestyle is more than half a minute faster than the record Janet Evans set 30 years earlier, but how much of that is attributable to the swimmer and how much to the science of and around swimming? That’s incalculable—although I can’t resist trying to do so in the book.

Even the strokes themselves won’t hold still. Butterfly wasn’t introduced into Olympic competition until 1956. The four-stroke individual medley and the four-stroke medley relay had to wait even longer. Meanwhile, the plunge, maybe the weirdest Olympic event ever—contestants dove into the water from a height of 18 inches and floated as far as they could for exactly one minute, without moving a muscle—came and went in a single Games, the 1904 Olympiad in St. Louis. The winning distance, for the record, was 62.5 feet.

Greg: What did you discover during your research that surprised you?

Howard: I was constantly being surprised, but what most surprised me was that in the Western World, swimming just flat out disappeared for a solid millennium. The Japanese have been swimming continuously since well before the Romans took up the sport; the Chinese, too. Early European traders marveled at the swimming of coastal Africans. In the early 1500s, Magellan took note of the exceptional swimming skills of Micronesian Islanders. Early explorers of the American West marveled at the aquatic talents of the indigenous Americans. In Europe and in England, though, the slate is virtually blank from the fall of Rome until well into the 16th century. In England, early guides to swimming spent their opening pages simply coaxing people back into the water. Exploring that mystifying gap was sheer joy for me.

For more on the history of swimming and other fascinating subjects, check out Howard Means’ book Splash! and visit him on the web at howardmeans.com.

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