SwimSwam, Review and Interview by Matt Rees

Matt Rees shares his review of Splash!, along with an interview with author Howard Means. Stock photo via Jack Spitser/Spitser Photography

“I regret staying dry.”

That line appears in the epilogue of a wonderful new book, Splash!: 10,000 Years of SwimmingThe author, veteran journalist Howard Means, is describing a recent walk he took along the banks of the Serpentine, an artificial lake in central London, only to discover that a portion of it is roped-off and open to public swimming. He suggests that he wanted to take a plunge but was without a suit and didn’t think his “skivvies” would suffice. His remorse over not being able to swim in the Serpentine endures.

That anecdote nicely crystallizes the passion Means has for swimming – passion that is conveyed throughout Splash. It helps that Means has been swimming just about his entire life and set several school records at the University of Virginia (more on that in the Q&A below). He’s now in his 70s, but his commitment to the sport hasn’t wavered. He writes that until a bodysurfing injury a few years ago, he would swim a 500-yard butterfly a few times each year. And while he lived in the Washington, DC area for 21 years, where outdoor swimming is typically limited to the Memorial Day-Labor Day period, he swam at a YMCA in the suburbs that would only close its outdoor pool if the deck was icy. So his swimming bona fides are solid gold.

Splash is a tour de force across the history of swimming, starting with a cave in the southwest corner of Egypt, near Libya and Sudan. The cave contains pictographs, from 8,000 years ago, seeming to show people engaged in aquatic activity that Means characterizes as “some highly relaxed version of the old-fashioned doggy paddle.”

In the chapters that follow, Means shows swimming making appearances in some unlikely places. He finds, for example, a swimming reference in the Bible (Isaiah 25:10-11). And in a chapter entitled “Swimming’s Golden Age,” he describes how the activity occupied a prominent place in the lives of Greeks and Romans during the classical period. (It was Plato, after all, who wrote, “A man is not learned until he can read, write, and swim.”) And who knew that swimming prowess contributed to Greek military supremacy? (That prowess was apparently a byproduct of the Greeks being more comfortable than their foes swimming in the buff.) Thus a fifth century Roman military treatise, De Re Militari, recommended that everyone in the Roman army know how to swim.

But this golden age came to end, writes Means, with swimming in the Holy Roman Empire falling prey to issues such as sanitation, prudery, and yes, military conquest. For much of the next 1,000 years, swimming had a diminished presence on the world stage (or at least the part of it that’s recorded), though Means notes that swimming features prominently in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (something my high school English teacher failed to mention).

Thankfully, swimming made a comeback in the 16th century, stimulated by the publication of a few different books on the topic – the most important of which was The Art of Swimming by Edward Digby. It described the activity as helping to “preserve the precious life of man, amidst the furious billows of the lawless waters, where neither riches nor friends, neither birth nor kin, neither liberal Sciences or other Arts . . . can rid him from the danger of death.” One of the better explanations of swimming I’ve ever read.

In describing this history, Means has a chatty, informal, and often light-hearted writing style that makes Splash a joy to read. It should be on every swimmer’s reading list and in every swim bag alongside cap, goggles, fins, and paddles.

Means also introduces the reader to places where swimming loomed large – such as Pompeii in Italy and Bath in England. And there are accounts of luminaries who cherished swimming, including Ben Franklin, Lord Byron, and Edgard Allan Poe. There are even two chapters on that most important part of swimming: the swimsuit. Perhaps most interesting of all are Means’ detailed profiles of some swimming celebrities from the first half of the 20th century: Gertrude Ederle, Annette Kellerman, and Johnny Weissmuller (who would go on to greater fame for playing Tarzan).

Splash comes right up to the present, with discussions of icons such as Michael Phelps, Caeleb Dressel, and Katie Ledecky, as well as an exploration of why swimmers keep getting faster and faster, with a discussion of everything from swimmers’ accessories (like suits and goggles) to pool equipment (like the construction of lane lines).

Splash closes with Means describing how his favorite place to swim these days is small lakes. The final passage is one that should warm the heart of swimmer and non-swimmer alike:

Two summers ago, on Christine Lake in far northern New Hampshire, a loon whooped maniacally as I swam from shore to shore and back again. The sun was hot; the water almost cold enough to make my teeth hurt. I was utterly by myself out there, and completely connected to where I was. Perfect.


First things first – let’s talk about your swimming history. Where did you grow up, when did you start swimming, and at what pool?

I was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and swam in my first meet when I was five years old – any stroke that would keep you afloat across a four-lane pool at the Lancaster Country Club. I won, I should add, not because I was the fastest swimmer but because I could dive in. Everyone else had to jump in and push off. Big edge! That, I should add, was in the summer of 1950. Yikes!

I began swimming winters at the local YMCA pool when I was nine and the next year was part of a 100-yard-free relay team that won the State Y championship. Coming home I blew my nose on a tissue that had been jammed in my pocket, rolled down the car window, and threw the tissue out, without realizing until too late that my new gold medal was wadded up inside it – a first lesson in littering.

By late junior-high, I was swimming summers with the Lancaster Aquatic Club – part of the AAU mid-Atlantic circuit. The highlight of those summers was the big meet at the Kelly Pool down in Philadelphia, and the highlight of the Kelly Pool meet was always the chance to jump off the 10-meter platform – sheer terror!

What were your favorite events? And what did you like about swimming? 

I was never a real speed swimmer. The longer the race, the better I did, and of course, the better I did, the more I liked the event. In high school back then, the only individual event longer than 100 yards was the 200 free, so that’s where I settled in. In college, I added the 500 free and, for league championships, the 1650.

Where did you go to high school? How good a swimmer were you relative to your peers? 

I went to J.P. McCaskey High School, in Lancaster, and I’m very happy to say even this many years later that in my senior year, when I was co-captain, we had an undefeated season and won the Pennsylvania high-school Eastern Regional Championships, and I broke the decade-old District 3 record for the 200-yard free. By contemporary standards, my time was laughable, a little over two minutes, but tens of thousands of yards in highly chlorinated water in the Stone Age of Swimming before goggles went into that time, and I was proud of it.

How did you choose the University of Virginia? 

In a way, the choice was made for me. Bob Clotworthy, the great Princeton swimming and diving coach, had expressed some interest in me and even extended an invitation to visit the school for that year’s Princeton-Yale dual meet. I was all set to stay at the Nassau Inn and witness a clash of titans. Steve Clark was at Yale, and Jed Graeff at Princeton, among others. But the night before I was to leave for Princeton, Coach Clotworthy called to say that, while I was still invited, the admissions committee had other thoughts about my attending the school.

Happily, I had been torn between Princeton and UVa, where my dad went to college, so it wasn’t a crushing blow, but Princeton had a stellar competitive-swimming tradition that UVa wouldn’t begin to match for decades to come.

What were the highlights of your swimming career at UVa? 

I was a big fish in a very little pond. I was co-captain of my freshmen team (back when freshmen couldn’t compete on varsity teams), co-captain my senior year of the varsity team, and holder when I graduated of all the UVa freestyle records for 200 yards and up. But the ACC back then was a sharply divided swimming universe. Three schools — UNC, NC State, and the University of Maryland — handed out swimming scholarships and had the facilities to match them and the swimmers as well. The rest of us competed for fourth place in the conference championship and for third-place in dual meets with the Big Three, since our pools, unlike theirs, were mostly four-lane affairs, sometimes barely removed from watering tanks.

If I deserve credit for anything, it’s probably for endurance. Almost always in dual meets, I swam the 200 free before diving, then the 200 fly and the 500 free afterwards. (I picked up the fly on our freshmen team, mostly because I was the only one who could make 200 yards of butterfly, but I got to love the event.)

On the endurance front, the 1650 was probably my strongest event. I finished 7th three years running in the ACC Championship, but I got hung up (psychologically probably) at 20 minutes and could never bust through it. That nagged at me at a very low level for 50 years until I started researching Splash and found that I would have been stroke for stroke with the winner in the 1500 meters at the 1928 Olympics. I wasn’t too slow. I was just 38 years too late!

Did you go straight into journalism after graduating from college? 

No, I took a Masters in English at UVa in 1967, then taught high-school English — for one year at Deerfield Academy and for seven years after that at St. Albans School, in Washington, DC, and coached swimming at both places, as an assistant at Deerfield and as head coach and c0-coach after that.

How did you come up with the idea for Splash

I have a soft spot for books that tell a compressed history of the world through a single lens — Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Cod, for example — and I thought it would be a great challenge and great fun to do that through the lens of a single activity, especially an activity that I have devoted a lot of my life to and still pursue religiously. This will be a labor of love, I thought, unlike my last several books, which were more journeys of discovery — about the Kent State shootings, the real Johnny Appleseed, and so on. And then, lo and behold, Splash turned into both a journey of discovery and a labor of love – the best of both worlds!

It must have been a labor-intensive undertaking. When did you start the research and writing? 

I’d been saving bits and pieces for a history of swimming for a long time. In fact, when I finally got serious about putting together a proposal for Splash, I found articles I had printed out on one of those tractor-pull printers they must have stopped making in the mid-1990s. So I had a pretty good base to build on, but then every time I came to a fork in the road, I’d wander down the road a bit, and there would be a whole new field of inquiry. Basically, once the book was under contract, I lived and breathed swimming for I would guess two full years, and whenever I got tired, I’d go do a hard 1500, or what passes for “hard” at 75.

Given that there’s no Library of Swimming, were there any particular challenges associated with your research? 

On my heavens, yes. Looking back, I think the biggest challenge was trying to find some valid way to compare swimmers across a century of competition. Objectively, Mark Spitz swam the 100 meters free 6.84 seconds faster than Johnny Weissmuller, but Weissmuller wore a silk singlet to compete, took off from starting blocks that look like they were made by a one-armed carpenter, and competed in pools with sheer sides and rudimentary lane markers. Caeleb Dressel might beat Weissmuller by a full length in the same event in a short-course pool, but Dressel takes off from hyper-engineered starting blocks, has the advantage of lane dividers that literally eat waves, and in a short-course pool does maybe 40 percent of his swimming in the lower resistance of underwater. In a way, I guess, there can be no true comparisons, but it just seemed important to try.

Can you talk about how Annette Kellerman changed the social history of swimming? 

I knew a bit about Annette Kellerman before I got started. Back in my senior year in high school, I wrote a long report on swimming in Australia in the 1950s, and Kellerman was a peripheral part of that story. (This will also suggest how obsessive the subject has been for me over the years.)  She was an absolute dynamo — an international sensation as a swimmer and entertainer across the first decade of the 20thcentury and a Hollywood movie mogul for several decades after that.  In 1910, she was also solemnly declared the most perfectly formed women of modern times by the head of the Harvard gymnasium after exhaustive study. But Kellerman’s great moment in the sun came in July 1907 when she walked on to Revere Beach in Boston in a self-designed one-piece bathing suit that revealed her shapely form and bare legs … and was, probably as planned, instantly arrested. At her trial, Kellerman decried Victorian bathing costumes that required “more stuff than you can hang on a clothes-lines,” the judge agreed, and at least in swimwear, women’s lib was born. It was one of those intersections of courage, person, and history by which much meaningful reform gets made.

The Olympics always showcase swimming. Can you talk about the swimming competition at the first two Olympics? 

At the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, swimming barely existed at all: three freestyle events open to all comers (one each from the U.S. and Hungary, two Austrians, and fifteen Greeks) and a fourth event for Greek sailors only. Except for the American and Hungarian, swimmers competed in the raw, and the American barely competed at all. He jumped off a float into the Bay of Zea and jumped right back out again — Way Too Cold. Four years later in Paris, backstroke and a 4,000-meter relay were added to the lineup, along with an underwater swim (winning distance 60 meters, perhaps current aided, since all events were held in the Seine River) and a 200-meter obstacle race in which swimmers had to climb over a pole and a row boats, then later swim under another row of boats. Wouldn’t that be fun in 2021 in Tokyo!

You write about several different people who were accomplished swimmers. Do you have a personal favorite? 

Annette Kellerman is hard to top, but Johnny Weissmuller kept growing on me as I wrote about him. I’d seen him in old Tarzan movies when I was a kid, so I already had a soft spot for him, and he was the unchallenged fastest swimmer in the world for a full decade through the 1920s when competitive swimming really captured the public’s attention. But he also had this wildly idiosyncratic stroke that he described as “hydroplaning” — head and even shoulders almost out of the water, feet buried deep as he kicked, like a speedboat taking off at full throttle — and he didn’t seem to take himself any more seriously than needed. During the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, he helped entertain the large crowds between swimming events by taking part in diving exhibitions off the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform. It couldn’t have been that hard a transition for him to start swinging on vines, holding Jane in his free arm.

Is there one swim race that you see as more impressive than any other? 

I mention this only in a footnote mostly because I couldn’t figure how else to get it in the book, but in January 2011 at a U.S. Masters meet in San Francisco, Laura Val broke every single freestyle world record for her 60-64-year-old age group during the course of a single 1500-meter event. Every single one. Lynne Cox’s epic swims across the Straits of Magellan, between the Aleutian Islands, from Norway to Sweden, etc., aren’t races per se except in the sense that she’s racing against fatal hypothermia and not even wearing a wet suit, but for sheer courage and almost superhuman accomplishments, she deserves a big nod as well.

Is there one chapter you enjoyed researching and writing more than anything other?

“Enjoyed” might be the wrong word, but the chapter I title “The Last Taboo” was probably the most meaningful one for me because it tied my own story to the unhappy history of race and swimming in America. As a high-schooler, I sat in lifeguard chairs three summers in a row at a lily-white public pool and never noticed the black protestors at the front gate. For two summers in college, I managed a community pool in rural Virginia — a wonderful place, some of the nicest kids and parents I have ever known. The summer after I gave up the job, the community plowed the pool under rather than integrate it. In researching my book, I found abundant evidence that coastal Africans and native Americans were wonderful swimmers — traders and explorers were forever marveling about it. Today, we see abundant evidence that over multiple generations African-Americans and native Americans have unlearned to swim for lack of access and lack of instruction, with sometimes horrible consequences. If my book could have a lasting impact, I would hope it could be this: Every American child should be taught to swim, as sure as they learn their ABC’s.

Other than Splash, do you have a favorite book about swimming?  

I was inspired early on by reading Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, but I ended up writing a completely different book. I also deliberately did not read Roger Deakin’s Waterlog in advance of writing Splash because I was afraid I would be tempted to compete with it — and I’ve since learned that Deakin is beyond competition. It’s absolutely wonky to admit it, but Ralph Thomas’s 1904 bibliography Swimming with List of Books Published in English, German, French, and Other Languages is exhaustive, often amusing, and amazingly erudite … although not much of a beach-read.

What about a favorite movie in which swimming is a central theme?

I definitely had a favorite — “The Swimmer,” with Burt Lancaster, fashioned from John Cheever’s July 1964 New Yorker story of the same name. I’d seen it years ago and sat down again to watch it with great anticipation as I was writing Splash … and I found it one of the saddest and most depressing movie experiences of all time. So I’m in the market for a new favorite swimming movie.

You mention several different pools and bodies of waters where you have swum. Do you have one non-competition swimming experience that stands out from the rest?

This memory came back powerfully to me as I writing: In the fall of 1961, my friend John and I drove half the night through eastern Pennsylvania and across New Jersey. A storm had been lashing Ocean City, kicking up what looked on television like monster waves, at least by East Coast standards. We wanted to body surf them at first light.  Twenty minutes or more of swimming through pounding surf brought us out to where the biggest waves were breaking, nearly to the end of the fishing pier not far down the beach. The rides back into shore were so long and powerful that we could roll on our sides to breathe and fall right back into the wave. In memory, we did this for hours that morning. Maybe we didn’t last that long in fact, but we were sixteen, on the high-school swimming team and stupid beyond belief.

You must have learned some things about swimming that surprised you. Does anything in particular stand out? 

Tons of things surprised me – I was in a state of constant amazement. How, for example, could a basic human activity like swimming simply disappear from the British Isles and Europe generally for a thousand years, beginning with the fall of Rome in the 5th century? I answer that, I hope, in Splash, but the fact that it happened at all still floors me. The Greek and Romans of antiquity were accomplished swimmers. Swimming was taken as a civic virtue, and when swimming finally begins to reappear in England and on the Continent in the mid-16th century, men and women have to be taught not only how to keep themselves afloat in water but how to be even begin to enter the medium of water. There’s an old joke that the Middle Ages were a thousand years without a bath. That’s not quite right, but for the vast, vast bulk of the population, they were a thousand years without a swim.

Having written about the history of swimming and how it has evolved through history, you must have some thoughts about swimming’s future. Do you have any predictions?

Of all the major sports, swimming is still the one most evolving. Think of it: One of the four strokes, butterfly, didn’t even exist as an Olympic event until 1956 — and thus the four-stroke IM and four-stroke medley relay didn’t exist either. The Berkoff Blast-Off, named for Harvard backstroker David Berkoff, is only about 30 years old, but the concept of doing underwater dolphin kicks out of the turn continues to revolutionize the sport and best times. The 2008 Beijing Olympics gave us the now-outlawed full-body tech suits, those empty 9th and 10th lanes, and a uniform 10-foot depth instead of the old seven-foot standard because wave-mechanics analysis showed ten feet did a better job of absorbing the turbulence created by the downward thrust of kicking. Meanwhile, lane markers are being refined by hydrodynamic studies thick with physics exotica like the Froude number breathtaking in their complexity.

Pools get ever faster. Swimmers get ever stronger. A Caeleb Dressel gob-smacks an old timer like me with his sub-18 second 50-yard freestyle, and when I ask Rowdy Gaines if there’s a bottom limit to these falling times, he says, “What’s going to happen in another hundred years? Is the time for a 50-yard-free going to be 12 seconds? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.” Me either.

Forthcoming Events

December: Six-part adaptation from Splash! (heavy on the visuals) to launch on SwimSwam.com, the most read swimming website in the world.

January: I’ll be one of three participants in a roundtable discussion of the history of swimming, to air on BBC World Services, with circa 140-million listeners.

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