Gentlemen & Natives

Exploring the Origins of the Strokes... Breaststroke came first. At least according to the conquerors, who decide such things. When the first books were written, when the first aquatic feats were recorded, this was the stroke that meant "swimming." It was the stroke of gentlemen and ladies - slow and in control, with the swimmer's head out of the water, in full survey of his watery domain. When crossing wine dark bodies of water, you didn't want your face in. Goggles were still many centuries away.

It's the stroke that Matthew Webb used when he became the first man to cross the English Channel in 1875. It's the stroke that early swimming promoter, Ben Franklin, used when he considered launching a swim school in London instead of helping to launch a nation across the pond. (True story...)

But history isn't fact, it's just subjective hindsight, and the history of swimming is no different. As the gentlemen of the Renaissance were slowly developing swimming as a sport, another stroke was being practiced - a good deal faster - by swimmers whose histories do not fill Western history books. I'm referring to the "native" races on far flung continents - the ones who first figured out that freestyle was the fastest way to move through the water. Presumably, wet hair did not bother them quite as much as the prim practitioners in Europe.

In a fantastic new book called "Swim, Why We Love the Water", author Lynn Sherr provides a fascinating history of our sport, tracing the roots of swimming farther back than humanity itself to our present day obsessions with this strange underwater art. I read it with a pen last week and my jealousy mounted with every turn of the page. I wish I'd written it. One month after its release, I'll confidently call it the best book on swimming ever written. (This, despite three unfortunate fact-checking errors in its section on present-day Olympians...) Sherr is interested in the act and the art of swimming itself; the elite competitive side is just one element of her book, but in its less than 200 pages, there's an endless encyclopedia of stories worth expanding upon.

Like this one: Back in 1844, a Canadian entrepreneur named Arthur Rankin invited a group of Ojibwa Indians to London, as guests of the British Swimming Society. On an April day at the High Holborn baths, the Society staged a match race between their Indian guests. (Please forgive the use of the word "Indian" instead of Native Americans in this context; the politically correct term was not yet coined...) Over a 40-meter course, the aptly named Flying Gull defeated his closest competitor named Tobacco. Sherr quotes a London Times sports reporter at the time: "They lash the water violently with their arms, like the sails of a windmill, and beat downwards with their feet..." Aka, early freestyle.

The first Modern Olympics were still 52 years away, but the foundation was set. The two core strokes were in place. One, the practice of proper society, the other, the form of the natives out on the world's frontiers. It's notable that Sherr finds evidence that this early freestyle was not just practiced by the Native Americans; it was also the chosen stroke of indigenous peoples of South America and the South Pacific. Freestyle, it seems, was the way forward for those free of society's structures.

And what about the other two, the backstroke and the butterfly? Mere mutants, born from their respective parents. Backstroke, after all, is not much more than straight-armed freestyle rolled over. And butterfly was birthed by innovative breaststrokers seeking an edge. For evidence, check out this old clip of the 200 breast final at the 1948 Olympics in London. (Be patient, the race itself is about two minutes in...) They're swimming with butterfly arms and a still-morphing breast-into-dolphin kick. Eight years later, the butterfly was its own event at the 1956 Olympics. And thus, the individual medley came to be too...

Every swim fan on earth will be watching the Games in London this summer, and by this point we've all taken the established strokes for granted. Four disciplines, three relays, 13 individual races for gold. But as a Faulkner-quoting friend said earlier today: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Worth remembering the next time you watch this ever-evolving sport on the big Olympic stage...

Because when tattoo-covered Tony Ervin steps on the blocks in London, I know I'll be thinking of Flying Gull, another free-flying American native who sprinted to glory in front of the gentlemen.

The Seaweed Streak

In Praise of Murray Rose, Australia's Original Thorpedo... 1939 - 2012, RIP "Wow, he was handsome," said my wife, taking a long look at a long ago cover of Sports Illustrated.

It was hard to disagree. The guy looked like a sun-baked superhero. See for yourself, right HERE: Rose as SI cover boy back on August 14, 1961, over half a century ago. Back then, Murray Rose was the greatest distance swimmer in history, the winner of four Olympic gold medals, a sporting icon Down Under whose fame at home was said to exceed Mickey Mantle's in the States.

Rose died last Sunday, April 15, of leukemia. He was 73. Over the last few days, I've been reading his many obits. (Here's a nice one in the New York Times.) The man had a story to tell, a life worth remembering...

First, his Olympic record: In 1956, at the Melbourne Olympics, 17-year-old Rose won gold in the 400, the 1500, and as a member of the Aussie's winning 4 x 200 free relay. Four years later, now the team captain of the USC Trojans, Rose returned to the Games in Rome, where he defended his Olympic crown in the 400 free, added a silver in the mile, and a bronze on the 4 x 200 relay. It's said that he would have added three more medals in those same events at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but by that time, Rose was immersed in a Hollywood acting career.

Aside from those outsized Olympic achievements, Murray Rose had another claim to fame: his diet. See, Rose was a vegan, a proponent of raw foods and only organically grown fruits and vegetables. Goes without saying, he was a few decades ahead of the foodie curve. He dined on seaweed and sunflower seeds and produce grown out back where he could see it pulled from the earth. In the late 50's after he'd exploded to prominence, his vegetarianism was the subject of countless articles. Indeed, he may have been the sporting world's first celebrity to promote natural foods. But unlike so many of today's fanatical holier-than-thou eaters, Rose was adamant about never pushing his dietary agenda on others. According to SI, he also had a "corresponding resentment of having others' opinions forced on him." In short, he made his own decisions and lived by his own set of values.

In that same SI story way back when, they called him "an Englishman by birth, an Australian by law, and an American by preference." Some background: Rose was born at the dawn of World War II in Scotland. His parents wanted to emigrate to the States, but they had some difficulties with immigration. Instead, they made their way to Australia, moving young Murray out of harm's way as the war intensified in Europe. The family settled within spitting distance of the Pacific, in an apartment overlooking Sydney harbor. Rose spent every day of his childhood with his toes in the water. He was "discovered" by a local swim coach when he was just 5-years-old. A dozen years later, he was the world's greatest swimmer - and the biggest star in his land, when Australia hosted the 1956 Melbourne Games.

Then, he was off to USC, leading his parents' long deferred American dream. His father, now a prominent advertising executive in Sydney, took a job in New York, while Murray settled into L.A. life as a Trojan. He swam for a young then-unproven coach named Peter Daland; Rose was soon elected SC's team captain.

By all accounts, Murray was a supremely humble, honest soul. He had some decent success in Hollywood, with a few roles opposite stars of the day like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, but once admitted he lacked the passion to truly commit to acting. He never had that problem with swimming. In the pool, his commitment was complete.

Rose was known for his ability always to win the close one. He was a pure racer, a guy who lived to be tested in head-to-head competition. 43 years ago, Sports Illustrated produced one of the all-time great quotes from any Olympian, when they asked Rose about his ruthless racing instincts. Said Rose: "If you are racing a man the object is to break him. You can break the other man's confidence by doing certain things. The big thing is to make him feel you are controlling the race."

Safe to say Michael Phelps, and every other champion who's come since, has shared that assassin's sentiment. But Murray Rose wasn't like the others. He had a perspective that transcended time and glory. Here were his parting words to Sports Illustrated back in that 1961 cover story:

"If you can concentrate so that time is meaningless, a race will give you complete pleasure and you will feel no pain."