Speed Swimming | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Speed Swimming

Swimming was considered to be an important survival skill by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans but was not contested as a sport.
Hodgson, George
Swimmer George Hodgson. At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics he won gold medals in the 400 m freestyle and 1500 m freestyle, setting world records in both (courtesy Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, www.sportshall.ca).
Tewksbury, Mark, in Action
In the pool in his gold-medal-winning performance at Barcelona (photo by Ted Grant/Canadian Sport Images).
Ottenbrite, Ann
Winner of 1984 Olympic gold and silver medals (courtesy Canadian Sports Images).
Baumann, Alex
Alex Baumann won two gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games (courtesy Canadian Sports Images).
Tanner, Elaine
In 1966 Tanner set world records in the 220-yard individual medley and 220-yard butterfly and, at the Commonwealth Games, won four gold and three silver medals (photo by Bill Cunningham).\r\n

Competition is recognized for 4 swimming styles - freestyle (usually the crawl), breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly - over various distances up to 1500 m. In medley events the swimmer uses all 4 strokes in a prescribed order. Freestyle and medley relay races are also staged, usually with 4 swimmers per relay team. Most top-level competitions are held in 50 m pools, but some are raced over 25 m lengths, and records are maintained for both distances. Long-distance, or marathon swimming is organized separately from speed swimming.


Swimming was considered to be an important survival skill by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans but was not contested as a sport. The first country to organize swimming on a national scale was Japan, when an imperial decree of 1603 ordered swimming to be included in the country's educational program. Swimming meets were held in Japan for over 300 years; however, no impact was made on other countries because Japan was closed to the outside world until 1867. Competitive swimming in Great Britain started in the 1830s, and the first international competition was held in Melbourne, Australia, in 1858. The first European championships were held in 1889, and swimming for men was included in the 1896 Olympic Games. Women began participating in Olympic events in 1912. The governing body for international competition, the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), was formed in 1908 and is responsible for all amateur aquatic sports: speed swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo. Its first world championships were held in 1973.

Speed Swimming in Canada

Today in Canada, speed swimming is controlled by Swimming/Natation Canada (SNC). This organization, formerly known as the Canadian Amateur Swimming Association, was formed in 1909. Prior to that time, swimming had been organized by a committee of what became the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada. The CASA (now SNC) remained the dominant aquatic-sports organization in Canada, and assumed control of diving, water polo and synchronized swimming. By 1969, this arrangement was no longer satisfactory to diving and water polo (synchronized swimming had withdrawn in 1950), and the Aquatic Federation of Canada was created as an umbrella organization. All 4 aquatic sports are members of the federation, which in turn serves as the Canadian affiliate to FINA.

Swimming clubs in Canada began to organize meets in the 1870s, and competitive swimming in Canada has traditionally been organized through swimming clubs. The Dolphin Club of Toronto, formed in 1875, and the Montréal Swimming Club, established one year later, were influential in the development of competition - the 1876 meet of the Montréal club being the first such event in Canada. But lack of facilities hampered the spread of the sport in most parts of the country. Races were often held in open waters, over courses marked by floats and booms. Long-distance swimming was very popular.

The Toronto Dolphin Club was one of the leading clubs during the 1930s, and the Vancouver Amateur Swim Club dominated Canadian swimming during the 1940s and 1950s. The Ocean Falls, BC, club produced outstanding swimmers far out of proportion to the size of that small, isolated coastal community; its swimmers were featured in Canadian meets, record books and teams during the 1950s and 1960s. The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association team re-emerged as a strong club during the 1950s, with coaches Ed Healey and George Gate. The successor to the Vancouver Club has been that city's Dolphin Swim Club, coached by Howard Firby and then Derek Snelling. In 1964 George Gate moved to the Pointe Claire Club near Montréal, and the strength of that club was demonstrated through the 1970s. Other important clubs of the 1970s and early 1980s were the Thunder Bay Thunderbolts, under Don Talbot; the Etobicoke Club of Toronto, coached by Derek Snelling; the New Westminster Hyack Swim Club, with Ron Jacks; and the Keyano Club of Edmonton, coached by Tom and Dave Johnson. At the start of the 1980s, efforts to build Canada's university swim teams began to bear fruit, and the trend of Canadian swimmers training at universities and colleges in the US was reversed as Canadian programs became more attractive.

Competitive swimming is one of the most popular and successful sports in Canada, with age-group and summer swim meets supplementing the regular program of regional, national and international championships. In the 1990s several significant developments took place. In 1993 Dave Johnson was appointed SNC's Coach for High Performance Services. In that same year, swimmers with a disability were integrated into the SNC program. In 1994 the first National Training Centre opened on the campus of the University of Calgary as part of its National Multi-Sports Development Centre, and the second national Training Centre opened in BC in 1997, with locations in both Vancouver and Victoria. These centres are designed to provide an avenue for swimmers who will most readily benefit from an accelerated track to high performance results in world swimming.

Canadians in International Competition

The outstanding Canadian swimmer in the early days of competition was George Hodgson, who swam with the Montréal Amateur Athletic Association. In 1911, he won the mile race at the Festival of Empire Games in London, and the next year thrilled Canadians by winning the 400 m and 1500 m events at the Olympics. He set world records at these distances that stood until 1924. At the 1920 Olympics, George Vernot, also of Montréal, was 2nd in the 1500 m race and 3rd at the 400 m distance.

With the inauguration of the British Empire Games in 1930, Canadian swimmers began to excel at shorter distances. The outstanding swimmer of the pre-WWII era was Phyllis Dewar, of Moose Jaw and Vancouver. At the 1934 Games she won 4 events. Her 5th win in 1938 set a record for gold medals won by a Canadian that stood until 1978. After the war, BC swimmers coached by Percy Norman of the Vancouver Amateur Swim Club and George Gate of the Ocean Falls Swim Club began to dominate Canadian speed swimming. It was during the 1950s and early 1960s that swimmers such as Lenora Fisher, Jack Kelso, Dick Pound, Peter Salmon, Helen Stewart, Mary Stewart and Beth Whittall among others started to establish Canada's status as a world power in speed swimming.

In 1966, Elaine Tanner, coached by Howard Firby of Vancouver's Dolphin Swim Club, set world records and won a number of British Commonwealth and Pan-American Games events, as well as 2 silver medals and one bronze in the 1968 Olympic Games. Other outstanding swimmers emerged at this time, and during the 1960s and 1970s Canada gradually rose to a position close to 3rd in the world, 2nd in the Pan-American Games and 1st in the Commonwealth. Bruce Robertson of Vancouver won the 100 m butterfly at the 1973 World Championships, the first world title for Canada since George Hodgson's 1912 achievements. Leslie Cliff (Vancouver), Nancy Garapick (Halifax) and Donna-Marie Gurr (Vancouver) were the leaders of a remarkably strong group of women swimmers; and Graham Smith of Edmonton, with 6 gold medals, led the 1978 team that completely dominated the Commonwealth Games. Later that year, Smith won the 200 m individual medley race at the World Aquatic Championships. Other outstanding swimmers during this period were Wendy Cook, Angela Coughlin, Cheryl Gibson, Ralph Hutton, Ron Jacks, Marion Lay, Becky Smith, Shannon Smith, Patti Stenhouse and Judith Wright. The postwar improvement of Canadian swimmers can be measured by the achievements of its Commonwealth Games teams: 1 gold and 2 silver medals in 1950; 2 gold, 3 silver and 6 bronze in 1962; and 15 gold, 7 silver and 9 bronze in 1978.

At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Canadian swimmers won 4 gold medals, 3 silver and 3 bronze, contributing greatly to Canada's most successful Olympic competition. The medal winners were as follows: Alex Baumann (gold in the 200 m IM, world record, and the 400 m IM, world record); Victor Davis (gold in the 200 m breaststroke, world record, and silver in the 100 m breaststroke); Anne Ottenbrite (gold in the 200 m breaststroke and silver in the 100 m breaststroke); Davis, Sandy Goss, Tom Ponting and Mike West (silver in the 400 m medley relay; West bronze in the 100 m backstroke); Cam Henning (bronze in the 200 m backstroke); Ottenbrite, Reema Abdo, Michelle MacPherson and Pamela Rai (bronze in the 400 m medley relay). In the 1987 Pan-Am Games Canada won 19 medals: 1 gold (Keltie Duggan of Edmonton in the 100 m breaststroke), 5 silver and 13 bronze. The retirements of Davis and Baumann left the team without leadership in the pool and its two best swimmers. The younger racers were able to find only sporadic success. The 1988 Olympics demonstrated the value of team leaders, as Canada could win only two medals. Davis led the men's 4 x 100 m medley relay team to silver and the women's 4x100 m medley relay captured bronze. Individual performances were well below expectations.

Mark Tewksbury established himself as Canada's leading swimmer, but it was increasingly apparent that Canada was declining in the pool. The 1992 Olympic Games at Barcelona confirmed Tewksbury's prominence when he won the gold medal in the 100 m backstroke and propelled the 4 x 100 m medley relay team to bronze. These, however, were Canada's only swimming medals at the Games.

With increased opportunities for international competition, Canadian swimmers made impressive showings throughout the 1990s. At the 1993 Pan-Pacific Championships, Jon Cleveland placed 2nd in the 200 m breaststroke, and 3 Canadians won bronze medals. The 1994 Commonwealth Games saw Stephen Clarke and Andrew Haley win the 100 m freestyle and 100 m freestyle S9, respectively, while Canadians won 8 silver and 9 bronze medals. The 1995 Pan-American Games were the scene of wins by Curtis Myden (200 m and 400 m individual medleys), Lisa Flood (100 m breaststroke) and Joanne Malar (200 m and 400 m individual medleys). At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Marianne Limpert won a silver medal in the 200 m individual medley and Curtis Myden placed 3rd in the the 200 m and 400 m individual medleys. Canada won only one swimming medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics; Curtis Myden repeated his bronze medal win in the 400 m, beating his own Canadian record. At the 1996 Paralympic Games, also held in Atlanta, Canadian swimmers won 9 gold medals and set 5 world records. In the 1997 Pan Pacific Championships, Canadians won 4 silver and 17 bronze medals.

A group of young Canadians has emerged in recent years that have been placing well or winning internationally. Ryan Cochrane has broken numerous Canadian records and amassed international titles. At the 2008 Olympics he won the preliminary round of the 1500 m freestyle, setting a new Olympic, Commonwealth, and Canadian record. He then won a bronze medal for Canada in the 400 m freestyle. Brent Hayden is a world champion, a world record holder, and a two-time Olympian. In 2007 he earned Canada's first world championship title in swimming since Victor Davis' win in 1986. Annamay Pierse has held multiple Canadian records, championship titles, and has placed well internationally.

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