White People Swimming Slowly

Greetings.  In the mid-1800's the only people who really cared about competitive swimming were Northern Europeans.  Maybe it was because they simply loved the joy of swimming.  Or maybe it was because they were really into competition and the chance to test their skill.  Or maybe it was because the water in their corner of the world was so cold most of the year and they didn't want to waste a moment when it was warm enough to swim. Whatever the case, when the weather was nice enough they organized swim meets with a real passion to see who could swim the fastest.  Their only problem, it turned out, was the simple fact that they had only figured out how to swim the breaststroke–the slowest of the four swimming strokes now used in competition.

And this problem must have become painfully clear to them at a swim meet in London in 1844 when two Native Americans showed up and began–God bless them–to swim a variation of the freestyle.  A stroke which we now know to be the fastest yet devised.  Needless to say, the visitors won every race they entered.  And one might have expected that their stunned hosts would now quickly try to master this new and apparently faster way to swim.  But they didn't.  Instead they committed to figuring out how to swim the breaststroke faster, so that next time these "different" swimming guests arrived they could kick their bottoms.  And this determination continued until 1873 when a young man named John Trudgen became the coach at a leading London club.  He, unlike his predecessors, had an open mind and while he had never seen anyone swim the freestyle he had heard about the visitors who had come 29 years earlier.  Eager to give his young charges every known advantage, he headed off to South America in search of these amazing swimmers.  Then finding them along the Amazon he asked them to teach him how to swim the freestyle.  A stroke which he mastered and then returned to teach his club.

In a short time his team would win every meet…as the freestyle was far superior to the breaststroke.  And now that some of their own were swimming a new way, the Northern Europeans finally decided to change.  As did the world of competitive swimming.  A final note that makes this story even more interesting is the fact that people in every corner of the planet except Northern Europe had been swimming the freestyle for about 10,000 years.  So the only people who really cared about competitive swimming were the only people on earth who had no idea how to swim fast.


But why do I mention swimming in a blog about genius, innovation, and business success?  Maybe it's because all of us, and the companies and organizations we work for, spend most of our time swimming the breaststroke.  Regularly making modest enhancements to business as usual in a world that demands more.  A world that now requires all of us to figure out a better way to swim. 

We win in business and in life by changing with the times, and continually learning to swim in new and more valuable ways.  Do you and your colleagues have the best stroke to compete in your world?  If not, it might be time for a few swim lessons!

Cheers and I'll see you at the pool!

One thought on “White People Swimming Slowly

  1. This is a great post. A few other riffs:
    1. The “trudgeon” was freestyle with the wrong kick! Not relevant, but interesting.
    2. The butterfly is actually faster than freestyle but far more exhausting. It turns out that it was invented by breast strokers who were cheating. They found a loophole in the rules and entered the breaststroke comps with butterfly and won so badly they had to invent a new race.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

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