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A swimming stroke originally used in competition by Australian swimmers, the Australian crawl was the basis for the freestyle stroke used extensively today. Although its origin is uncertain, tradition accords its development to an early twentieth-century Australian family of competitive swimmers, the Cavills. The early Australian crawl was similar to the natural style used by Pacific Islanders. The stroke, as developed by the Cavills, proved to be faster than the traditional breaststroke and quickly became popular.

In 1873, Mr J. Arthur Trudgen introduced into England a swimming style that had an overarm stroke, similar to what became known as the Australian crawl. However the Trudgen overarm stroke was quite slow, because the leg kick involved bringing the knee up as far as the hips. Lifting the knee up that far created a lot of resistance in the water and slowed you down. It is almost certain that the Australian crawl came from the South Pacific, via a young Solomon Islander, Alick Wickham. Alick, the son of a European trader and a woman from the Solomon Islands, came to Australia around 1898, aged 10, for his education. It’s said that his swimming coach, George Farmer, was so amazed watching him in a swimming race a Bronte in Sydney that he yelled out: “look at that boy crawling over the water!” soon Farmer was teaching others the strange new style.

Arthur Cavill later improved the Australian crawl. At the age of 21, Cavill held the Australian swimming title for 220 yards. His whole family was involved in swimming. They participated in swimming as well as coaching. Apparently, Cavill actually saw Alick Wickham training. He realised what a great style is was and started using it himself. He later stopped using the Trudgen kick, and began to use the flutter kick (the legs ‘flutter’ up and down from the hips).

Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian swimmer who won three Olympic gold was the final great improver to the Australian crawl. He changed the kick by adding more flutter kicks – six per arm stroke cycle, not two.

The style has been modified since then. However, it is certainly the basis of the swimming style used in all freestyle events since.

Adapted from: Dr Karl’s collection of great Australian facts and firsts

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

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