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Historical Perspectives: A Dive into the Tradition of Wild Swimming

Ranging from cold plunges to ultra-marathon swims, it's fascinating to explore the roots of outdoor swimming. Throughout history, open water and wild swimming experiences had cultural, religious, and even political importance, as generations were connected by the water. I wanted to learn more about wild swimming's journey through the historical perspectives of swimming, uncovering its cultural significance, evolution, and the timeless allure that has kept this tradition alive through the ages.

Ancient Egyptians

Swimming was a popular sport in ancient Egypt, with athletes practicing in the River Nile. Swimming was taught to younger children along the calmer banks of the Nile. Based on drawings and art, it seems that swimming was accessible across all levels of Egyptian society, and an activity available to all genders. Egyptian, Hittite, and early Greek and Roman imagery show people swimming a front crawl in bodies of water.

Ancient Mesopotamia

In some areas of Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, many were fearful of swimming, associating wild waters with tales of monsters. The deity called Dagan was the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's ancient eldritch horror ("Deep Ones").

Ancient Greeks & Romans

The roots of wild swimming can be traced back to ancient civilizations where bodies of water were revered for their cleansing and healing properties. In ancient Greece, natural springs and rivers were seen as sacred spaces, where individuals bathed not only for physical cleanliness but also for spiritual purification. The Romans elevated the art of bathing to new heights with their elaborate public bathhouses and intricate aqueduct systems. These communal spaces were not only places for personal hygiene but also social hubs, fostering a sense of community and connection. The Romans recognized the therapeutic benefits of water, incorporating bathing into their daily lives.

Medieval Swimming (or lack thereof)

Despite a decline in public bathing during the medieval period, water maintained its significance in religious rituals and private bathing practices. Monastic communities often established secluded ponds for contemplative swims, emphasizing a connection between spirituality and the natural world.

Victorian Era: a Bubble of Bathing

The Victorian era witnessed a resurgence of interest in wild swimming, marking it as the "Golden Age of Bathing." This period saw the construction of seaside piers, lidos, and beachfront resorts, transforming coastal areas into popular destinations for recreational swimming. The prevailing belief in the health benefits of sea air and saltwater bathing propelled wild swimming into the mainstream. Doctors would even prescribe being in or close to the open water as therapies.

The Rise of Swimming Clubs & Bathhouses

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the formation of swimming clubs, contributing to the social aspect of wild swimming. These clubs, often exclusive and male-dominated at first, eventually paved the way for a broader acceptance of women and families in swimming communities.

My personal connection with this era is swimming the fences at the Curley Community Center in South Boston, MA. Curley was opened in 1931 to encourage ocean bathing as a "monument to health" during the Great Depression, and to provide a respite from the summer heat to families without air conditioning.

Decline and Resurgence

The mid-20th century witnessed a decline in wild swimming's popularity, largely due to concerns about water pollution and the advent of indoor swimming pools. Thankfully, recent decades have seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in wild swimming, fueled by a growing awareness of environmental conservation, a desire for holistic well-being, and the thrill of reconnecting with nature.

Today's Wild Swimming Culture

Wild swimming is on the rise, especially in Europe. Multi-sport adventurers use day-pack floats (like the Quackpacker) to haul hiking, picnicking, and other exploring gear across wild water, allowing them to continue adventuring outside the shore safely and comfortably. During COVID's rise in 2020, most indoor swimming facilities were closed, and local swimming holes were flooded with swimmers and families looking for alternative ways to experience swimming. Folks have continued being more involved in open water and wild swimming as a way to commune with nature, practice longer distances, and have a different sensory experience than the 4 walls of a pool.

With the rise of wild swimming, organizations like The WaterStrong Initiative are working to disseminate water safety knowledge to children and adults to ensure that people accessing wild water can have safe experiences, and be able to respond to emergencies.

In addition, with the higher costs of living, individuals and families are returning to their local wild waters as getaways, coming full circle with the concept of wild waters having a cultural and spiritual importance. As more work is done to rehabilitate and conserve waterways, more community members are respecting our waters as more than just an infinite resource for industry and advocating for wild water protections so generations to come can continue reveling in the experience of wild swimming.

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