Me Tarzan, you Mae – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the art of swimming

 Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

 

Johnny Weissmuller, alias Tarzan of the Apes, taught me how to swim. I must give my Dad some credit too.

Once upon sunny summer my father pulled some bulrushes from the edge of the Shannon, bound them together and eased them under my arms. With one mighty push, I was swimming. We tried it several times until the rushes became waterlogged and sank but I remained buoyant. I could swim! It took no less a person than Tarzan to fine-tune my efforts into the art of swimming.

As far back as I can remember I was a Tarzan fan of the highest order and, as luck should have it, our neighbour Tessie worked as an usherette in the local cinema. She slipped me into a matinee free charge whenever I appeared in the foyer. I drew frequently on her kindness. Sitting in the darkness of the Grand Central Cinema as I watched Tarzan of the Apes dive into jungle rivers my heart and soul dived in with him. I measured his every arm movement and every kick of his flying feet.

So that summer when I watched swimmers in our local Abbey river I knew exactly where they were going wrong in the new powerful front crawl stroke that Johnny Weismuller demonstrated for me in the Grand Central Cinema, Limerick.

Swimming has changed drastically since my, and indeed Johnny Weissmuller’s, time. Remaining buoyant in water started out as a sort-of doggy-paddle or a cautious sidestroke with arms pulling under the water and swimming remained like that until the end of the 19th century, when an Englishman –John Trudgen – discovered a way of increasing his swimming speed.

By rocking from side to side he managed to throw one arm out over the water in a forward action and by digging in and pulling himself forward with that one arm.

The other arm still remained under the water using a shorter pulling movement. The legs were used in a pulsating scissors movement. And with that Trudgen had invented what is still referred to today as the “overarm”.

At the beginning of the 20th century in Australia along came the Cavill Brothers who were passionate about swimming. It was Richmond and Arthur Cavill who had the most success.

They improved John Trudgen’s overarm stroke by balancing it with a thundering kick that allowed them to use both arms alternately out over the water with a powerful pulling hand action. That is how the great Australian front crawl was born and lives on in the mighty Ian Thorpe style of swimming today.

I suppose the most relaxed and easiest way of swimming is the breaststroke but even that has had its evolution. In the 1930s the Japanese team took a bunch of Olympic gold medals by swimming a high-speed breaststroke underwater for long distances and there was nothing in the rule book to disqualify them. That rule book had to be consulted once more at the 1952 Olympics when yet another variation of breaststroke was presented.

Swimming breaststroke underwater in competition had been ruled out but this time the Japanese had another trick up their sleeves. They swam as the rules dictated but by leaping forwards and flinging both arms simultaneously out over the water thereby increasing their speed beyond all others. A new stroke had been invented, the butterfly.

The backstroke has moved on too. Again, and again I drew on the kindness of our neighbour, the usherette at the Grand Cinema, to watch Esther Williams in The Million Dollar Mermaid, Dangerous When Wet and other watery films. Esther was a master of the backstroke.

Although she was robbed of a chance to win an Olympic gold when the 1942 games were cancelled because of the war.

Esther’s perfection in swimming took her into films and she not only looked gorgeous, she could smile widely underwater without swallowing gallons.

Back in July 1922, an unknown 18-year-old Austrian immigrant living in Chicago became the first person to swim 100 metres in less than one minute. This was Johnny Weissmuller, and he consolidated that record at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris and improved on it four years later in Los Angeles. Those record times, his handsome face and amazing physique landed him the Tarzan role in films.

And yes, that’s the very same Johnny Weismuller who taught me the art of swimming with a little help from my dad, Esther Williams, a bundle of bulrushes and of course, the usherette at the Grand Central Cinema in Limerick all those years ago.

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