How Racism Kept The World’s Fastest Swim Stroke Out Of The Pool

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On April 20, 1844, two men from North America jumped into the Bath in High Holborn, a 130-foot pool in London. They were there to show how fast they could go.

The British Swimming Society had invited the two men, Wenishkaweabee and Sahma, Ojibwe people from Canada, to compete against each other for a silver medal. Both times that the two swimmers raced the length of the pool, Wenishkaweabee won; in the first race, he was seven feet ahead. But the contest between the two men was less significant than the speed with which they both crossed the pool, in under 30 seconds.

Far from being wowed by this very impressive time, though, the British press found the two swimmers’ movements “grotesque.” The Ojibwe men hit the water “violently,” one paper reported, with their arms thrashing, “like the sails of a windmill,” as they “beat downward with their feet.”

The real contest that day was not between the two swimmers, but between their style of swimming—what we now call front crawl, or freestyle—and the breaststroke favored by the British.

Read Atlas Obscura

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Production engineer and certified swim coach. Full-time IT consultant, spare-time swimming aficionado. 2 sons, 2 daughters and a wife. President of the Faroe Islands Swimming Association. Likes to run :-)

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