Photograph from the Dutch illustrated magazine ‘Het Leven’ (bathing issue), 1937.
You used to see a lot of swallow dives, but nowadays you hardly ever do. This is partly because most pools have got rid of their diving boards and many are not deep enough.
It is a shame, but I fear the swallow, or swan dive has had its day. It seemed to coincide with the era of the Lido, of Busby Berkeley swimming extravaganzas, of Esther Williams, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and sweeping art deco architecture.
I am just old enough to have benefitted from the end of the swallow dive era and remember seeing many beautiful dives executed from the high diving board at our local pool. I remember that moment when the diver seems to hang in the air, swooping upwards for a second with arms outstretched before bringing them together over the head and hopefully entering the water with the smallest of splashes. I even on one spectacular occasion saw someone do one of these dives off a bridge into the Thames at Twickenham.
I never did one myself. I didn’t have the courage or the skill. It seemed to be something that men and boys did to show off. I don’t know how they learned, I am quite sure most of them were never taught. They just plucked up their courage and copied one another.
This photo taken in 1910 is by Jaques-Henri Lartigue – a wonderful photographer, who was ‘discovered’ at the age of 69, although he had been painting and taking photographs all his life.
One of my first ever swimming pupils was a friend. He had never learned to swim as a child mainly because his childhood had been disrupted and he had moved around a lot and maybe no one had ever taken him. I didn’t really teach him much, just went swimming with him during one very hot summer. We went to the local pool which was a beautiful open-air Lido, now demolished. It had a sweeping Art Deco staircase leading to the changing rooms, two fountains and pink paving stones surrounding the pool. It was beside the Thames just opposite Eel Pie Island. There was and is a footbridge over to the Island. The bridge is arc shaped, like a concrete rainbow with metal railings on each side. Once after we had been swimming we were sitting down by the river when we saw a man walk up to the top of the bridge, climb over the railings and execute a beautiful swallow dive into the Thames
‘Though it seems paradoxical, one must have absolute abandon and at the same time minute precision, to become a good swimmer.’
How to Swim – Annette Kellermann 1918
photo by Yoshiyuki Iwase
In fact the ama-san or women free divers of Japan are not diving for pearls as was once thought but for abalone, namako (sea cucumber) and oysters. Some estimate that the practice is as much as two thousand years old. The ama, who are all women, dive without scuba equipment such as oxygen tanks although today they do wear wet suits. It was the women who did the diving because they were able to stay under water in the cold for longer than the men. Ama divers today are mostly older; many are in their fifties or sixties, some keep on diving into their eighties and nineties. Younger women tend to leave the remote island communities where the Ama live and travel to the cities.
These women are pursuing a traditional, deliberately sustainable and ecologically sensitive tradition. The men help the women with the nets, the boats and keeping house.
This beautiful video tells their story. The title comes from the strange whistling noise the women make before diving. This helps them to stay under water for longer.
Where the sea whistle echoes
This was an Ancient Greek proverb, referred to by Plato, signifying a person who had learned nothing useful at all in childhood and was therefore ignorant!