A Brief History
On July 9, 1922, Johnny Weissmuller became the first man to break 60 seconds in the 100 meter freestyle swim, posting a world record time of 58.6 seconds. Weissmuller rode his fame as a swimmer to become the Tarzan of the movies that we think of as the definitive Tarzan. He was the greatest swimmer of his day, but girls routinely beat his best times today. Here we list 10 of the greatest swimmers in the world and in history, some of which may not be what you are thinking of. (Maybe next time we can list the worst swimmers!)
10. Sperm Whale.
The second deepest diving air breathing animal, this giant whale can dive as deep as 10,000 feet in search of its prey, the Giant Squid. (The deepest diving whale is the Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, but what the heck is that?) Averaging about 50 feet long, and perhaps reaching as much as 80 feet, the Sperm Whale is the largest toothed carnivore in the world. It can weigh up to 63 tons, and in 1820 an angry Sperm Whale sank the American whaling ship, the Essex. Its brain weighs 5 times as much as a human brain.
9. Polar Bear.
Only slightly smaller than its cousin, the Brown Bear (Kodiak Bear), the Polar Bear is the most aquatic of all bears and can grow to as much as 2200 pounds. Spending much of its life in the water, these guys only swim about 6 mph (much faster than any human) but have been found as much as 200 miles from land. The most carnivorous of bears, Polar Bears eat meat almost exclusively, including sea animals such as seals, walruses, and smaller whales.
8. Leatherback Turtle.
In spite of the stereotype of turtles as slow plodding creatures, the Leatherback is the largest breed of current turtles, and the fastest swimmer of all reptiles, zipping along at as much as 22 mph. And to think, they can weigh as much as 2000 pounds and average close to 1000 pounds. Plus, they can dive as deep as 4200 feet (Wow!) and stay under for up to 70 minutes. Interestingly, they are somewhat warm blooded animals, unlike common turtles.
Although not as fast as some of the other water dogs, the 100 to 150 pound Newfoundland is the strongest swimmer of the dogs. Bred to save human lives and recover fishing equipment, this web footed canine resembles a bear with its shaggy black coat. Cracked fact: The Labrador Retriever is also from Newfoundland, but since this dog already had the name, the Lab was given a different handle. Cracked fact: Basset Hounds, the heaviest boned of all dogs, are the worst swimmers, and can only swim for a short distance before they tire out.
6. Mark Spitz.
In 1972 at the Munich Olympics Spitz captivated the world with his record setting 7 Gold Medals in 7 events, all 7 of which were world records. (Phelps beat that with 8 Gold Medals in 2008). Cracked fact: The (American) Jewish Spitz was snuck out of Munich for his own safety when terrorists attacked the Israeli team.
5. Orca (Killer Whale).
Actually in the dolphin family and not a whale, Orcas move their great bodies at 35 mph, faster than a Great White Shark. (Some sources list a top speed of as much as 55 mph.) At a maximum recorded size of 32 feet long and 10 tons (normal would be more like 26 feet and 6 tons) these critters are much larger and heavier than White Sharks and they sometimes kill the largest whales on Earth, just to eat their tongues!
Lots of birds swim, and many do it well. Loons, Shearwaters, Cormorants and others, but penguins swim so well they do not even bother flying. When a bird can outswim fish, that is one swimmin’ bird! They are also the cutest thing that swims. The Gentoo penguin can reach 22 mph in the water.
These beautiful billfish with the sail like fin on top can hit a maximum of 68 mph, making them the fastest fish that swims, and a fantastic game fish. Marlins are also quite fast, with a reported instance of a Black Marlin reaching 80 mph, although the Sailfish is generally regarded as the fastest fish.
2. Diana Nyad.
A remarkable long distance swimmer, she made waves (pun intended) by swimming all the way around Manhattan Island and swimming from the Bahamas to Florida. Her greatest feat came in 2013 when at age 64 (!) she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
1. Michael Phelps.
Seriously, who else did you expect? With 22 total Olympic medals in swimming, 18 of them Gold, Phelps is the most decorated swimmer of all time. With short legs despite his great height, long arms, and large feet and hands this guy is built for swimming like no other.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who (or what) would you add to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Lohn, John. They Ruled the Pool: The 100 Greatest Swimmers in History (Rowman & Littlefield Swimming Series). Scarecrow Press, 2013.