Amphibious Man; Humans aren't really designed for swimming, but a lot of us do an awful lot of it. (Published 1964) (2023)



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Amphibious Man; Humans aren't really designed for swimming, but a lot of us do an awful lot of it. (Published 1964) (1)

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SWIMMING is one of the most enduring enthusiasms in American statesmanship. George Washington loved a swim, at least in his early, surveying days, and Benjamin Franklin lauded swimming as “a normalizer and reducer of fatty tissue”—despite the fact that it seemed to do little for his own rolypoly condition.

More recently, Franklin D. Roosevelt swam regularly for his health. President Kennedy, as is well known, was accomplished enough in the water to have towed a wounded shipmate to safety after their PT boat was sunk in the Pacific, and he continued to swim throughout his life. And President Johnson works out regularly in the White House pool.

TODAY, just about everyone swims. The American Red Cross, through its 50‐year‐old Water Safety Services, trains close to a million new swimmers every year, and millions more are taught in schools, camps, community swimming programs and the Armed Forces. It is likely that more Americans can swim than can participate in any other sports activity, estimates varying between 143; 000,000 and 170,000,000—75 to 90 per cent of the population.

The National Safety Council, concerned about 6,000 drownings annually, estimates that about 30,000,000 people actually went swimming last year—at ocean beaches, lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs, ponds and in some 27,100 community and municipal swimming pools. In 1963, there were also 188,000 residential pools in backyards from Hollywood to Maine.

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Water sports have grown in popularity along with swimming itself. Twenty years ago there were virtually no skindivers; last year, there were 5,000,000. Another 6,500,000 people went water‐skiing. There is even a small but growing group who seek out sharks for brief underwater wrestling matches, and another devoted to “parascuba.” Wearing underwater breathing equipment and parachutes, these enthusiasts bail out over the ocean for a free fall through air followed by a free dive through water.

SWIMMING is by no means a natural human activity. The first swimmers, it is conjectured, were driven by hunger to search for sea food, and it must have taken millennia before they felt comfortable enough in water to enter it unaided. The earliest known records of swimming, now in the British Museum, show Assyrian soldiers of the ninth century B.C. swimming a stream with the aid of inflated animal bladders.

Carroll L. Bryant, who used to run the Red Cross Water Safety Services, has suggested that for man to be fully at ease in water, his neck would have to be six inches longer than it is and his thighs six inches shorter. Built as he is he has problems. His naturally erect posture, which works tolerably well on land is a hopeless drag in a dense, elastic medium like water. Moreover, the density of his body gives him a specific gravity better suited to drowning than swimming.

The average man, dunked and motionless, submerges to eye level. He must make some movement, if only to lift himself high enough out of the water to gulp air, but he can't use a walking or similar motion as most quadrapeds do, because the thrust against water that he can achieve with the small area of his feet is not great enough to keep him upright.

To hold his face at or near the surface for any length of time, he must assume a more or less horizontal position on top of the water. He is aided in this by the water's buoyancy, but to propel himself with any semblance of efficiency, he has to make large, coordinated movements with all his limbs. This is a feat he seldom undertakes on land, and one that requires development of balance and equilibrium in an unaccustomed position.

FOR these reasons, most people must be taught to swim, but despite the problems, they learn quite easily. Gene Stephens, a Fresno, Calif., swimming instructor, regularly teaches children to swim before they are old enough to walk, and has found no special difficulty in doing so. Harold Bassett, who runs the Red Cross Water Safety Service in Brooklyn, finds that most youngsters under 16 learn to swim with no more than eight hours of instruction. Over that age, nonswimmers may have a strong fear of water and it may take longer.

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People who have real difficulty learning to swim are rare enough to be remarkable. Harry Hainsworth of the Amateur Athletic Union, who has spent much of his life as a swimming instructor, remembers only one real problem case, a man named Adam Gunn. “Adam had been a great track and field athlete along about 1904, 1905, and though I met him many years later, he was still an extremely strong, muscular man,” recalls Mr. Hainsworth. “He said he'd had all kinds of swimming lessons over the years and though he had no fear of water, he'd been too musclebound ever to learn to relax in it.

“I asked him to show me what he could do, and for starters, he jumped in the deep end of the pool and crawled along the bottom the entire 50meter length (about 165 feet) without coming up for a breath. I couldn't believe that he'd have any trouble swimming after that demonstration but he did. It took many, many hours—much longer than average—before I could get him to go the length of the pool on top of the water. Even then I never did get him to breathe properly. People like Adam are very rare.”

ONCE they learn to swim, people have an admirable exercise available to them for life, with at least two things going for it that no other activity can match. The first is that, as every adolescent weightlifter knows, muscle fiber swells when exercised, and activities involving only some muscle groups are likely to produce bulging body parts—gymnast's shoulders, skater's calves and so forth. Since swimming exercises the entire body, however, ladies and others who don't covet body bulges can swim, confident that all their muscles will develop in proportion with one another.

THE second is that swimming is more adaptable to individual needs than most other exertions. A swimmer may elect a dowager's gentle sidestroke, or go on to only slightly less restful backstrokes. He may do a breaststroke, a crawl or even the butterfly—a lunging, flailing, half‐out‐ofthe‐water racing stroke that may just be the most exhaust‐ ing voluntary activity known to man. Moreover, with the exception of the butterfly, any of the strokes may be done near the borders of torpor or with extreme vigor.

Whether there is any real physiological substance to a widely held belief that swimming is the best possible exercise, however, no one knows. In a 1950 experiment at the University of Illinois, reported by Dr. Thomas Cureton, 10 men of ordinary stature and athletic ability, ranging in age from 26 to 55, went through an eight‐week course of daily swims, after which their physiological reactions and performance in certain out‐ofwater exercises were measured.

All showed over‐all gains in circulatory and respiratory function and in muscular strength—as one might expect after any course of exercise. But they also showed some drop in reaction times and agility, which may have been due to the fact that cold water acts as a nervous depressant.

EXPERT opinion is no more conclusive than experiment. While some doctors recommend swimming, others see no more value in it than in any other exercise. “Properly supervised swimming is a good exercise and excellent therapy for certain back conditions,” says Dr. Leroy Lavine, an orthopedic surgeon of Great Neck, L. I. “Problems like herniated discs and muscle sprain are very common, particularly among men in sedentary occupations. If there's no contraindication in a herniated disc case, I'll try to get him to swim regularly. It isn't so much that the exercise helps the disc directly as that it strengthens the back, which helps avoid recurrences.

“Swimming can also be very good for paralytics,” continues Dr. Lavine. “Remember F.D.R.'s fitness program? The water's buoyancy supports the body, so people who can't stand or walk without assistance can move their limbs in a pool, and can exercise parts of their body that aren't incapacitated.”

President Kennedy, plagued by a back ailment, also swam —but not to ease his back. “The President swam because he enjoyed it, and because he had a pool ini the basement,” says Dr. Hans Kraus, the specialist in physical medicine and therapeutic exercise who treated him. “I suppose that swimming helped him to keep fit, but I never suggested that he swim, and the swimming had nothing to do with therapy for the back. He. took other exercises for that.”

Dr. Kraus, as may be suspected, is in the pool of physicians who are lukewarm about swimming. “It is by no means a health panacea, nor does an occasional brief dip amount to anything as exercise,” he says.

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“Any exercise, swimming included, requires a definite workout to be done daily if possible. For a healthy man to see how many lengths of the pool he can swim in a half hour is one thing, but to get himself wet and rush out of the water is not exercise, it is delusion.”

THERE is no doubt, however about the improvement of swimming techniques. Swimming records have been toppling with relentless regularity ever since people started keeping them. Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, did it in 21 hours 45 minutes in 1875. With rare exceptions, every swimmer since then has beaten the previous swimmer's time, and in 1955, Florence Chadwick's time on a course similar to Webb's was 13 hours 55 minutes.

The first Olympic record for the 100‐meter swim, in 1896, was 1 minute 22 seconds. Johnny Weismuller's 1924 time was 59 seconds. In 1956, it was down to 55.4 seconds; last year, it stood at 53.6 seconds.

Yale's phenomenal swim ming coach emeritus, Robert J. H. Kiphuth, who trained over 400 winning teams between 1917 and 1960, attrib‐ utes the steady improvement to a variety of factors. One is the general increase in swimming, related to the increase in leisure. Another is the Amateur Athletic Union's Junior Olympics Age Group Program. This enrolls and provides the stimulus of competition for about 500,000 youngsters annually, between the ages of 8 and 17. In addition, he feels, “the whole level of human performance has increased. The human body can deliver more than anyone ever dreamed of.”

Why human capacity should have increased so startlingly is difficult to understand. People have been growing larger, and presumably, stronger, as health standards have improved, but they've hardly doubled in size, as the nearhalving of swimming times might suggest.

An answer as good as any other may possibly be provided by the incomparable Murray Rose, who became the youngest triple‐medalist in Olympic history when he won three events in the 1956 Melbourne games at the age of 17. He went on to become the first swimmer in history to defend and retain an Olympic distance title, in the1960 Rome games (the 400‐meter free style—the record for which he still holds) .

At 6 feet and 185 pounds, Rose has fine but fairly ordinary proportions. No long neck, no short thighs. Nor, despite an English sportswriter's allegation to the contrary, webbed feet. He does, however, live on an unusual diet. He eats almost nothing but seaweed, sesame seed, millet, unpolished rice and halvah, washed down by carrot and other juices and an occasional dollop of honey. Though Rose has made a point of not recommending this diet to other swimmers, it's just possible that the word got around.



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Were humans designed to swim? ›

No, we're not designed to swim that way. We're not streamlined. The shark and dolphin have streamlined bodies. In contrast, humans are what fluid dynamicists refer to as bluff bodies.

Are humans naturally supposed to swim? ›

Humans, who are closely related to the apes, also do not swim instinctively. But unlike apes, humans are attracted to water and can learn to swim and to dive. 'The behavior of the great apes in water has been largely neglected in anthropology.

Why are humans not natural swimmers? ›

The human body is not really made for swimming. It is made for walking and running. Our upright gait on two legs sets us apart from other mammals—the ones our ancestors were chasing on foot. Our unusual anatomy actually makes swimming harder for us than it is for animals that go about on four legs.

Have humans always been able to swim? ›

Swimming has been recorded since prehistoric times, and the earliest records of swimming date back to Stone Age paintings from around 7,000 years ago. Written references date from 2000 BC.

Could people in ancient times swim? ›

Prehistorically, swimming was essential in order to cross rivers and lakes – as indicated in ancient cave paintings from Egypt which depicted swimmers. According to Archaeological and other evidence, it is safe to say that swimming must have been practiced as early as 2500 BCE in Egypt, Greek, and Roman civilizations.

How did humans know they could swim? ›

Stone Age cave paintings in southwest Egypt and Libya depict our swimming ancestors. Assyrian combat training included teaching the Assyrians how to swim – of which reliefs survived – and young people in Israel also had to learn the art of swimming.

Do humans know how do you swim at birth? ›

It is not true that babies are born with the ability to swim, though they have primitive reflexes that make it look like they are. Newborns are not old enough to hold their breath intentionally or strong enough to keep their head above water, and cannot swim unassisted.

Can human babies instinctively swim? ›

Babies are also born with many reflexes that allow them to swim without being taught. Unfortunately many of these reflexes will disappear very early in life, which is why it is important to start early so that they are available to use.

Could a human swim across the ocean? ›

In 1998, Lecomte became the first person to swim across the Atlantic Ocean when he completed a 73-day, 5,980-km (3,716-mile) journey from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Quiberon, France.

Do swimmers live longer than non swimmers? ›

On average, swimmers live longer than non-swimmers, even compared to people who partake in other physical activities. But why? What is so great about swimming that it actually adds years to someone's life?

Are men naturally better swimmers? ›

Swimmers have biological differences that affect their performance according to their sex. Women have lower hemoglobin levels, oxygen supply, and do not develop as much muscular power. Therefore, in sprint events, women are quite far from reaching men. However, ultra-distance swimming is a different story.

Why do swimmers have to be hairless? ›

It has been proven that shaving the arms, legs, back and pretty much any other part of the body exposed to the water reduces frictional drag, improves streamline and heightens the swimmer's awareness and feel for the water (more on that in a second). It's also very common for cyclists and triathletes to shave.

What percentage of Americans Cannot swim? ›

Overall, the survey finds that more than half of all Americans (54 percent) either can't swim or don't have all of the basic swimming skills. Other key survey findings are: About one in three (33 percent) African Americans reports that they can perform all five basic swimming skills, compared to 51 percent of whites.

Why did sailors not learn to swim? ›

Ships were big, bulky, and slow; turning them around took way more effort than they were willing to expend. Chances were if you fell overboard or sank, it wasn't worth the agony to prolong the inevitable—so not learning to swim and drowning quickly was actually nicer than struggling for hours.

What percent of US people can swim? ›

But a new report from the American Red Cross shows many Americans believe they are better swimmers than they actually are. While 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of them can perform all five basic skills needed to swim safely.

Are humans the only apes that swim? ›

Most mammals are able to swim instinctively without training; a notable exception being the great apes. Humans are clearly able to become proficient swimmers with training; other great apes, however, have not been documented as swimmers beyond anecdotal reports.

Why do humans like to swim? ›

Swimming is a great stress reducer, it releases endorphins which give us a sense of wellbeing and happiness as well as releasing ANP, a stress reducing hormone. It's perfect for people with a busy lifestyle, just 30 minutes of swimming can burn over 250 calories. It's fun!

Is the swimmers body illusion real? ›

The Swimmer's Body Illusion is a cognitive bias where we confuse selection factors with results. In other words, we mistakenly believe that certain outcomes are caused by specific activities, when in reality, those outcomes may be due to factors that existed before the activities took place.

Why are humans attracted to swimming? ›

"We have a 'blue mind' -- and it's perfectly tailored to make us happy in all sorts of ways that go way beyond relaxing in the surf, listening to the murmur of a stream, or floating quietly in a pool." "Being around water gives our brains and our senses a rest from overstimulation.


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