Updated 11 March 2010
If you find yourself in water and don't want to drown, you'll need to swim. Most creatures have an evolutionary skill that allows them to swim by instinct1, but if humans want to swim, they will have to learn from scratch.
What is Swimming?
Swimming is simply moving your arms and legs, whilst in water, to stop you drowning. If you stay in the same place, it's known as treading water and if you move, it's called swimming.
Why would anyone want to swim? The obvious reason is that if you end up in deep water by mistake (say, falling into a river or pond), you can get to safety. Lots of people also swim for pleasure or for exercise.
Swimming for Health
Swimming is often recommended for improving your overall fitness, especially for those who find it difficult to manage more high-impact forms of exercise, such as running. Swimming is low-impact because the water supports your body, which puts less stress on your tendons and joints. It works your arms and legs equally, so you don't end up lopsided, and there are different strokes so you can choose which to swim. People with bad knees, for example, should avoid breaststroke as this can exacerbate the problem. Finally, as with any continuous exercise, like aerobics, it helps improve the cardiovascular system and can help burn away excess calories to help lose weight.
Some people like to take the continuous exercise idea further and choose to develop their stamina to great heights. Such people may choose to swim long distances, such as swimming the English Channel, or combine it with cycling and running as a triathlon.
If you want to compete against other people in the pool, it's time to talk about two things: strokes and clubs. Strokes are the different styles of swimming that are officially recognised and standardised, and clubs are what you'll join to enable you to compete on a regular basis.
There are four strokes that are recognised in competitive swimming. Each stroke is considered a speciality, and so are the distances - some people are natural endurance swimmers and some are sprinters. Races are held in 25 or 50 metre pools2 in local competitions, 50 metre for national and international events.
Front Crawl is perhaps the best known competitive stroke. It is the fastest, and swum on your front with your arms rotating alternately and your legs kicking constantly. There is no race called Front Crawl. Instead the races are called Freestyle, which technically allows the competitor to choose any of the four strokes. As front crawl is the fastest, virtually nobody swims anything else.
Backstroke is swum on your back, as the name suggests. It could be described as front crawl on your back but in reality the arms work quite differently in order to be efficient. Backstroke is the only race that starts in the water rather than from a dive.
Breaststroke is the one stroke swum by most non-competitive people, although they often swim it incorrectly. Swum on the front, the arms (and legs) mirror each other rather than working alternately. The arms push out at the front and then circle outwards and in towards the chest. The legs rise up towards your bottom and then push outwards. It is the slowest competitive stroke.
Butterfly has a reputation for being hard. If you've got a good kick and the correct rhythm though, it can be a pleasure to swim. The arms and legs mirror each other - the arms rotating together and the legs kicking together in what's called a dolphin kick. It is the newest of all the strokes.
There are also other strokes that aren't recognised competition strokes. Sidestroke is often used by lifesavers, and sculling can be swum as a training stroke to help fitness, or simply for a slower look at life!
Joining a Club
The first thing is to find your local swimming pool. Most will have their own club, which will be run by volunteers (not the staff at the pool). The majority of clubs will be based around the children's activities (normally about nine to eighteen years of age), but will usually have an adult section as well, generally called the Masters. Depending on the club set-up, they will either train at the same time as the children or will have their own night or morning sessions. The members of the club who are chosen to compete are often called the swimming 'squad'.
Your club will be part of a league, which is organised by geographic district. Competitions, which are known as 'galas', are usually held on Saturday evenings at a host pool around the region. Often, certain pools, which are better suited to hosting the number of people attending or are most centrally located, will host more often than others. The races are decided by stroke and distance in advance, and are the same at each gala. They mix up the order to both keep it interesting, and to give stroke specialists a break between the different distances. There are also some team races, called relays.
The next level up is your county. There will usually be county galas held once a year. Anyone can enter, which means there will be round after round of people swimming the same race. The winners go forward to a final which will determine the county champion of that particular stroke at that particular distance. There is no overall winner, as each stroke and distance is considered a separate event3.
If you win at county level, or shine so brightly at district level that you get noticed by a county selection panel, you may get selected to represent your county. You will be invited to training sessions to further your development. If you become one of the winners at this level, people will start to look at you to represent your country. This sort of level will require dedication to a huge amount of training. Who knows - you could go on to swim in the Olympic Games!