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Early History of Swimming

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Swimming is the largest participant sport in the UK because it crosses all age and gender boundaries.

It is a sport for life that saves lives.
This Early History of Swimming web page was created in 2004 and was conceived as an academic exercise when there were few available online articles on swimming history. The information was paraphrased from a compilation of evidence from the references shown below with the early historical source being, Orme (1983), as Orme could be considered the foremost authorative scholar on the Early History of British Swimming. If in doubt, please read his book and the original sources. The article was written to show the early history of swimming and the subsequent development of modern competitive swimming. This is a vibrant sport that continually changes. Competions are controlled by governing bodies, currently FINA, in order to create fair international competition. However, individuals and coaches use new methods and find ways to challenge the existing rules and to improve training methods to seek an advantage. The bending of those rules has led to new rules and eventually new strokes. This ongoing process is further demonstrated in the new (2010) FINA requirement on costumes, hats and goggles.


Earliest History

The earliest physical evidence of swimming relates to prehistoric drawings from the Stone Age at "the cave of swimmers" near Wadi Sura in the south western part of Egypt. Documentary evidence provides references from circa 2000 B.C. with several examples from the Greek fables and from the Bible (Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42) and Isaiah 25:11, who asserts that "he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim"


Ancient Swimmers depicted
Source : Sunday Times , 2000 in

An Egyptian clay seal dated between 4000 B.C. and 9000 B.C. shows a group of swimmers that appear to be swimming an early form of front crawl. Some of the most famous drawings have been found in the Kebir desert and are estimated to be from around 4000 B.C. Depictions of swimmers have also been found dating from the early Minoan, Babylonian, Indian and Inca empires.

Early civilizations including the Egyptians, Persians and Greeks extolled the virtues of cleanliness and Plato declared that "anyone who could not swim lacked a proper education". The Romans were heavily influenced by Greek culture and bathing played a major part in the Roman social life and the most famous Roman of them all, Julius Caesar, was an accomplished swimmer.

Like many sports e.g.  lacrosse, horse riding, polo, archery,  throwing, javelin,  and marathon running, competitive swimming can be traced back to a miliiatistic culture. The early Greeks built swimming pools, and swimming was not a competitive sport in the ancient Olympic Games, though it was encouraged as a martial art. Read, "The story of Scyllias and Hydna", at ISHOF.(

"Competitive swimming is at least as old as 36 B.C., when the Japanese held the first known swimming races." (Direct communication, Donahue, M., 2009; Red Cross Swimming and Diving (1992, pg 4)), "organised by Emperor Suigui (spelling unclear)", source, [] [Author note: exact name is disputed]

Later, "as the result of the encouragement given to the study of swimming by the various feudal clans during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), swimming as a military art developed", ISHOF (2009). The first national organisation was formed in Japan in 1603 by Emperor Go-Yozei, who also stated that all children should be able swim.

In 1587 Everard Digby, in an early latin paper  "De arte Natandi", translated  into English in 1595 as "A Shorte Introduction for to learne to swimme" by Christopher Middleton, claimed that humans can swim better than fish. Initially sounding foolish, if taken out of context, it is not untrue, as Digby's analysis correctly notes that humans can swim vertically, horizontally, forward, backward, on their side and upside down, on the top of the water and beneath the waves. Whales and dolphins may have many of these skills but they are not fish. Orme (1983) includes quotes on swimming from great writers including Marlow and William Shakespeare.

"Like an untrained swimmer plunging still, with too much labour drowns for want of skill" ,"Rape of Lucrece"

Many books have been written on teaching swimming, however they are often based on the principles of a three step approach, originally expounded by Guts Muts, in "Kleines Lehrbuch der Schwimmkunst zum Selbstunterricht", (Small study book of the art of swimming for self study) in 1798

These principles are:
1. Get the student comfortable with water,
2. Practice the movements out of the water
3. Practice the swimming movements in the water.
Muts also felt that swimming should be an essential ingredient of a students' education.

Gender Bias in Sporting History

Swimming for women has been influenced significantly by gender, stereotyping, bias and "decency" laws. Annette Kellerman was arrested in the USA for indecent exposure in 1907 because her swimsuit depicted her arms legs and neck when performing an "Underwater Ballerina", in a glass menagerie, in an early demonstration of synchronized swimming. It wasn't until the Olympics in 1912 that freestyle for women was first allowed in the Olympic Games. Prior to this date, the founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin had accepted the wrongly held Victorian belief that women were too frail to engage in competitive sports. This fallacy was entirely destroyed when in 1926 "Gertrude Ederle “did what was thought impossible for a woman” when she swam the English Channel and “ beat the best time by a man by over two hours (14hrs 39mins) ” proving “ to the world that women "had the stamina to participate in physically demanding activities” at “a level equal to men” [] The record however, only lasted a short time and was broken by Arnst Vierkotter only 24 days later. Current, August 2011, channel swim records are held by Chad Hundeby at 7 hrs 17 minutes (male) and Penny Lee Dean at 7 hrs 40 minutes (female).

Early Development of a Sporting Society and Swimming

The earliest recorded evidence in the UK suggest that the Romans first introduced swimming to Britain in 78 A.D and swimming was generally a sport of the lower classes,. The University of Cambridge have evidence of swimming as a sport being banned due to a drowning accident, that date back to 1567. After the agricultural revolution, the population of major towns and cities increased significantly and diseases caused by lack of hygiene also increased. This ultimately led to changes in public health and the building of public baths. A swimming pool was built close to Cambridge University in 1705 and by 1855 Cambridge University formed one of the earliest UK swimming clubs. [] 

The earliest confirmed (and still existing) swimming club "Upsala Simsällskap, the Uppsala Swimming Society"... "was founded in Sweden in 1796 by the mathematician Jons Svanberg" where, in a mock graduation ceremony, students who completed its swimming training  were "awarded  degrees of master magister and bachelor kandidat"; an award that exists for  swimmers to this day. (

The first civic corporation to open an indoor municipal pool was Liverpool. The St George's Baths was opened in 1828, with water provided from River Mersey, (International Journal of the History of Sport, 2007). It was not until the Baths and Washhouses Act, 1846, came into effect that the development of the late 19th century modern industrial society would eventually turn swimming into a multi-participant competitive event. In Victorian times, increased leisure time and socialisation led to the formation of swimming clubs and by 1880 there were over 300 swimming clubs in England. As clubs became prolific, competitions naturally began between individuals, clubs and later nations.

"Nothing Great is Easy"

There has been a massive contribution to swimming history by swimmers of long distance open water events , in Greek myth, Hero and Lysander and in 1810 Lord Byron, who swam the Hellespont , a  mile stretch of water between Europe and Asia, that is now an annual multi paticipant event (  Though the exploits of  modern swimmers like Lynne Cox, Susie Maroney and Martin Strel are remarkable, it could be considered  that , for many, the ultimate challenge and test of endurance is the swimming of the Channel. All channel swims are now celebrated and commemorated by the Channel Swimmers Association and these remarkable achievements and records are listed at ( with the most notable being Michael Read 33 crossings, Alison Streeter 39 crossings. (Youngest Man - Thomas Gregory Years 11 years 330 days, Youngest Lady - Samantha Druce  12  years 118 days. which due to rule changes, the youth records will stand for all time)

River Severn, downstream of Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, a warm day in Sept, 2010.

When great English sporting heroes are mentioned, Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the channel must surely be at the forefront. In Greek mythology it is said that there are three fates, the Morderae, that decree all our lives ". . . for the immortals have appointed a proper time for each thing upon the earth . . ." (Homer, Odyssey 19.590) ( and Mathew Webb’s life story lays testament to these fates. Born in Shropshire in the town of Dawlish, on 19th January, 1848, (Capricorn/Aquarius), one of 14(13) children "one died in infancy", (Watson,2000:14), he learned to swim at seven years of age in the strong currents of the River Severn near Iron bridge, Coalbrookdale and where as a young man he and his brother Thomas once saved their brother Charles, Watson(2000) from the dangerous currents near the Iron bridge, ( He joined the Merchant Navy at 12 and worked for the Cunard line and saved the life of a fellow seaman whilst aboard the training ship “Conway”. When older he became a second mate aboard the “Russia” and made a valiant attempt to save the life of another shipmate who had fallen from the rigging and for his courage  was awarded  £100 and “the first Stanhope Medal” by the Royal Humane Society as ” Webb swam in the open ocean for more than half-an-hour but found only the young man's cap.”(

Photo Image show collection of Captain Webb's heirlooms donated by V.E.Marsh-Webb and displayed at

Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire

By 1873 he had become the captain of the steamship “Emerald” and was inspired by J.B.Johnston’s failed channel swim attempt, to train at the Lambeth Baths in London and in the cold waters of the Thames, with a view to be the first man to complete the task. Fully grown and at his physical peak, 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 14.5 stones, on the 12th August 1875, he made his first attempt, which was aborted due to dreadful weather conditions. On 24th August 1875, 12 days later, he set off from Admiralty Pier, covered in Porpoise oil, wearing a red bathing costume and 21 hours and 45 minutes later, after a 39 mile breaststroke swim, buffeted by tides and stung by jellyfish, he finally waded from the sea at Cap Griz Nez near Calais.  From these achievements came great press and public adulation and he became a professional swimmer, swimming exhibitioner and entrepreneur, writing a book “The Art of Swimming”.  The welcoming crowds at Dawley gave rise to a legend. A pig startled by the tumultous crowds was reputed to have put its front trotters on a wall , paying homage as the great man passed  and gave rise to the phrase "Pig on the Wall". If this commentary were fiction, it would have been a good time to stop here but the fates and the necessities of life in the Victorian age decreed otherwise. Falling crowds pushed the captain to attempt to achieve even greater glories and a £12,000 prize in order to provide for his wife (Madelaine  Kate Chaddock) who he had married in 1880 and his two children Matthew and Helen. He decided to swim across the Niagara River. 

( )

A scary place: Youtube video: 

Imagine trying to swim across this: Youtube video

Swimming the Niagara Falls Whirlpool Rapids

On the morning of the swim, a shadow of the man who had swum the channel, dressed in the red costume he wore for his successful channel swim and without telling his wife, asking his friend Robert Watson to look after her (, at 4.32pm on 24th July 1883, "he jumped into the river from a small boat and began his swim. Within 10 minutes he had become caught in the current and was dragged under by the whirlpool." The pressures of the water are so immense around the Whirlpool Rapids and the undertows, currents and sharp rocks would make any attempt immensely dangerous, even for modern trained swimmers and at the time, many claimed that any attempt would be suicidal but that challenge was how Captain Webb had lived his whole life - in the water and on the brink. His bloated and partially decomposed body, covered in cuts, with his head gashed was found four days later by R.W. Turner and interred  at Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls. ” ( So ended the life of a great early English sporting hero, and son of Shropshire. Many doctors examined the body and they could not agree on the cause of death. some said he was crushed by the weight of the water, others drowned or the gash to the head The coroner eventually decided that the cause was unknown, although officially, drowning is recorded on the death certificate, Watson (2000).

“Nothing great is easy” are the words on the memorial at Dawley and though his body lies in  a paupers grave in Oakwood Cemetery, USA, his spirit still inhabits Dawley, immortalised by John Betjeman's poem in "A Shropshire Lad" (1940) that commemorates his ghostly apparition, more than half a century after his death.

"William J. Kendall, a policeman from Boston Mass. swam the Whirlpool Rapids on August 22, 1886. He wore only his swimming trunks and a cork life preserver. He suffered minor cuts and bruises." (  Such is fate.

Memorial to Captain Matthew Webb at Dawley, Shropshire:

Image: adapted from ( pasted on web video page copy from (

Please Note: Every drowning is a tragedy. Don't become a statistic yourself. 95% of the "Swimming" drownings are male. Beware of alcohol, bravado, carelessness, & recklessness. (

Ironbridge is also famous for the building of an early floating swimming pool in 1879 which was created to help prevent drownings and provide recreational facilities for the town's many visitors. Supported by pontoon barrels and measuring 50 feet by 16 feet, the pool used folding doors to allow the through passage of river water.  Averaging over 300 customers a week, it was likely washed away by the winter storms of 1881. (

Modern Coaching

The very best coaches examine each element of starts, turns and stroke in order to train their protégés to make faster times. Competitive swimming is an ongoing process of far seeing coaches attempting to find new and better training ways rather than using established methods, starting from the first technical coaching book "The Manual of Swimming" written by Charles Steedman, an Englishman, in 1845. The establishment often seeks to retain the style, consistency and visual look of the four conventional strokes and any changes that may compromise safety or stroke often result in changes to the rules. The history of modern competitive swimming is part of a continuing story of this development of swimmers seeking an advantage.

The battle of the freestylers

In 1844 Americans native swimmers to the shock of local spectators, easily outperformed a group of English gentlemen who chose to swim with their heads above water using breaststroke, by using a crude splashy windmill action. Due to social niceties (and fear of water born disease) this style was not accepted and so did not take off immediately. A form of front crawl only became socially acceptable in 1873 when re-introduced as the Trudge(o)n by Sir Arthur Trudgeon. He had learned it from South American Indians as a young man of 11 and returned to England and used it in winning a championship race in 1875. The Trudgen is an over arm stroke that is characterised by a breast or scissor kick rather than a flutter kick.

In 1898, Alick Wickham, a Solomon Islander introduced the recognisable beginnings of the correct crawl stroke to the western world.


Source: beforeduke.html

George Farmer, an Australian coach, is attributed with the phrase "look at that kid crawling" and from that phrase a new word describing a stroke that would eventually dominate all subsequent speed racing was born. A British-born Australian swimming teacher, Richard Frederic Cavill, used this front crawl technique with a flutter kick in 1902, at an International Championships in England, set a new world record and easily outpaced all the Trudgen exponents, swimming 58 seconds over the distance of 100 yards and the Trudgen was lost, to all but its dedicated followers forever, as a competitive stroke. In 1906 H. Jamison "Jam" Handy, a keen, physically limited (according to his own words), but technically gifted, before his time, American Olympic athlete, is credited with the invention of modern freestyle breathing. He experimented by putting his face in the water in secret training sessions and became the first swimmer to use a bilateral stroke action to dominate a race.

According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame

"Handy is responsible for modern freestyle breathing, and the body position made possible by modern breathing. He invented the legless crawl for distance swimmers, the 2 or 4 beat "pause that refreshes" for middle distance, and lines on the bottom of the pool for sprinters to keep their heads down and see where they are going. He was the first swimmer to use the alternating arm stroke in backstroke and the first swimmer to narrow the kick and change the timing in breaststroke. This stroke of alternating legs and arms performed on the front is technically now known as front crawl and is currently the dominant stroke in freestyle events. "

Backstroke - Austin Rawlinson - MBE

Austin Rawlinson was awarded an MBE in 1961 for services to British swimming. In 1915 Rawlinson had pioneered the use of the alternating arm backstroke in Britain based on Hebner's 1912 Olympic gold medal performance. After finishing an active swimming career Rawlinson continued serving swimming in an administrative capacity and was commemorated in his lifetime by the building of the Austin Rawlinson Sports Centre in Speke, Liverpool. It has been suggested, that it may be possible for some backstrokers to swim faster times by using considerably more flutter kicks, but as yet this style has never been proven or fully developed.

David "Blastoff" Berkoff: the backstroke start and turn.

In 1988 at the Olympics David "Blastoff" Berkoff swam the first 33 metres of the 100m backstroke entirely underwater. Because drag is a major factor in swimming fast, it is technically faster to swim underwater using a butterfly kick. In the final Berkoff was out "blast-offed" by Daichi Suzuki who won the gold in 55.05 as he had also perfected the method in secret. FINA, concerned with safety quickly limited the underwater start to ten meters, which was later expanded to the current underwater distance start limit of 15m in 1991.

The development of butterfly and breaststroke

In 1928, David Armbruster the coach to the University of Iowa in the USA, introduced new scientific rigour to the study of swimming through the use of underwater photography. When analysing breaststroke he realised that by bringing the arms out of the water this would increase velocity by eliminating the dead spot. Jack Sieg, a student of Armbruster was coached in this method and swam close to 1 minute for the 100 yards swim and by 1938 nearly all competitive breaststrokers were using this style. In 1952 the butterfly stroke finally became a style in its own right. In 1956 a Japanese swimmer Masaru Furukawa found another way of swimming faster breaststroke. By swimming the stroke largely underwater he won the Olympic gold medal. Unfortunately this led to swimmers copying Furukawa and some competitors passed out during races due to oxygen starvation. A new rule was introduced by FINA, limiting the distance that can be swum underwater after the start and every turn, by demanding that the head break the surface after each complete stroke cycle.

One element of common cheating at breaststroke, with changes to FINA rules, has theoretically been removed, by allowing a single underwater downward kick (fly kick) at the start and following each turn, however, in a major competition, video footage of the underwater start, in the year after this rule was first applied, clearly shows a male finalist medal winner gaining an unfair advantage by using a very quick, almost imperceptible double fly kick, in the dive wake, followed by a legal downward kick.

see article at

There is still clearly a need for video evidence at major competitions.

Misty Hyman and Coach Bob Gillett

Bob Gillett, the coach to Misty Hyman used food dye to examine forces in butterfly. Discovering that energy was lost using the vertical dolphin action he coached Hyman to swim on her side using fishlike movements. Gillett said it became clear to him "that there was a great amount of energy swirling beneath the surface", energy that was not only being lost but also causing retardation through turbulence. At the Canadian Open Championships in Saint Foy, Quebec, Hyman taking only 16 strokes rather than the usual 40 reduced the world butterfly record by .39 seconds and perfected the art of swimming like a fish. The technical committee of FINA, the sport's governing body, restricted all underwater starts for Fly, Back and Freestyle to a maximum of 15m. Hyman, disappointed said, "We'll set ourselves short if we limit it on butterfly". She also said. "Don't break the rules, but push it to the limit." It was noticeable that, at the recent World Championships in 2005, 3 out of 4 of the USA Gold Medal winning mens freestyle team, used this butterfly action kick, on the side, in the turn.

"Doc" James Counsilman (1920-2004)

A history of swimming would be incomplete without reference to an assistant coach to Armbruster who would eventually become universally accepted as the world's greatest ever swimming coach. James "Doc" Counsilman author of "The Science of Swimming" and producer of the "Competitive Swimming Manual", he used a 2D model to examine lift and the Bernoulli effect. Although this work was further re-evaluated by Rushall et al using a 3D model, it prompted the continuing debate whether lift or drag dominated swimming propulsive forces. Counsilman was the coach to many of the all time greats of swimming and his swimmers won more than 48 Olympic medals. Counsilman developed interval training, the pace clock and constantly searched for new and better ways. "He believed that we keep progressing by evaluating change objectively. He warned: "Don't paint yourself into a corner; people write something and they are scared to walk away from it." Doc had an anti-doctrinaire nature which precluded him from swallowing systems whole. He believed that putting methods into neat pigeon holes, to synthesize them, led to "stagnation and not progress." []

Alongside Counsilman, two further coaches, both Australian, were important innovators in swim research, training and racing. Forbes Carlisle, introduced even-pace (negative split) swimming and "speed through endurance" and Frank Cotton, was the "Australian Father of Sport Science". Both of these coaches brought revolutionary thinking and research into swimming. In 1932, Cotton proposed using the heart rates of swimmers to measure the energy costs of training effort and insisted that his swimmers keep log books and he also instituted the revolutionary idea of shaving the body to swim faster times.


It could be argued that some councils since the 1960's have consistently run down swim training facilities in favour of leisure fun pools. There is a lack of 50 metre swimming pools compared to many developed countries and sport and swimming in particular in Britain is not entirely equal opportunity as access to facilities are often both culturally and demographically biased. For example, one problem that cannot easily be solved relates to cultural identities that are concerned with female modesty in some aspects of British society that protect or deny opportunity depending on the accepted norm but this in itself does not entirely explain why there are so few black individuals competing in swimming in the UK. While it has been imperative for clubs to register for Swim21 it is also necessary to examine statements that challenge the status quo "Coaches understand this more than anyone " ... "that Training developments won't come from what authorities tell you. They are like the military, always fighting the last war. It's the individual coaches out there, the ones experimenting and developing great swimmers, who will move the ball down the field." [,2005]. This is especially true given statements from Winett (2003) who challenges "the lunacy of current training for many champion athletes" claiming that "many champion athletes are so genetically gifted that they are champions despite their ridiculous training programs. They are so genetically gifted that they survive seemingly any and all physical assaults." "Not surprisingly given the very large volume of their training, many swimmers have shoulder injuries primarily attributable to over training. For example: The cause of the inflammation or tenderness around the rotator cuff is typically the large volume of training." ... "with that much endurance training in the pool, adding muscle mass is next to impossible ."

A divide exists in the UK in some sports and swimming in particular. On no account could swimming be considered a racist sport but at any open competition there have been very few black competitive swimmers over the previous two decades. This is largely due to socio/economic and cultural factors and it is a tribute to the Liverpool Council and the ASA that there is a plaque at the new Liverpool 50M pool, honouring a great black swimmer, coach and life saver (James Clarke). Since 2007, the ISHOF (USA) has celebrated Black Swimming history, demonstrating the contribution of black athletes to swimming over the ages at

Picture with permissiion: 21 Dec 2009

It is traditionally parents from upper socio-economic groups, that are most easily able to provide enough economic support, for weekly club fees, transport to quality training and gala fees and their academic and managerial skills are essential for officials and the administration of small swimming clubs. Twenty, to sixty pounds, a month may seem a small amount to some to pay for training facilities but lack of financial acumen can become an almost insurmountable problem for poorer families and children from financially better off social groups are often ensured greater sporting success due to the early development of superior competitive skills. One notable exception is Sharon Davis whose biography "Against the Tide" portrays how difficult it is for financially deprived families. This cost is particularly relevant in a sport that requires a long-term investment in training. It is only recently that swimming has become part of the mainstream UK education but the school level is largely only to learn to swim and there is a massive divide between a club trained swimmer and a traditional school swimmer. It is impossible to gauge a beginner's potential and some individuals never receive enough training to reach the required status that would provide support through lottery funding and this means elite athletes may be missing from the sport.

Although overall standards of swimming continue to rise, this comes at a price. The requirements for success sometimes mean that well intentioned parents and coaches apply a very high volume training regime that sacrifices love for the sport and enjoyment for short term achievement. Across the world, a high percentage of teenagers leave sport, especially swimming, some completely disillusioned believing they have lost a significant proportion of their childhood and they may never return as masters; and as parents, are less likely to provide the next generation of athletes. An analysis and criticism of some of the modern methods used is in "Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport" , Fraser-Thomas (2006), Fraser-Thomas and Cote (2007), who suggest a DMSP (Development Model for Sports Participation), that is, not starting formal specialised ie not fun based, training in any sport until early teen or later, leads to long term athletic development and the retaining of young athletes in sport. Evidence shows that talent cannot be identified until after puberty, Blanksby(1994) and it is interesting to note, that at a time when so much is demanded of very young British swimmer athletes, that South African, Penny Heyns, Olympic Gold Medalist and Triple World Record holder, only swam a sprint based program of 3000 metres a day until she was 18.]

In the Liverpool and District Championships in 2005 and 2006 there were very few senior female swimmers over 16 years of age and these are not unusual figures.

A far more in depth study of the early history of swimming can be obtained from an excellent literary resource "Breakthrough Swimming", Colwin (2002), pgs 5-32, Human Kinetics 


References: Other resources well worth reading. Facts stories and links on swimming and swimming history


Blankby, B et al (1994) Athletics Growth and Development in Children, Taylor and Francis

Fraser-Thomas, J. (2006) "Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport", Psychology of Sport and Exercise

International Journal of the History of Sport (2007) 'An overview of the development of swimming in England, c.1750-1918', International Journal of the History of Sport, 24:5, 568 - 585

Orme, N. (1983) Early British Swimming 55BC - AD 1719, University of Exeter.

Colwin, C (2002) Breakthrough Swimming, Human Kinetics (One of the better swimming  history books)

Red Cross Swimming and Diving (1992), GV837.6.S96, pg 4

Watson, K. (2000) The Crossing: The curious story of the first man to swim the English Channel, London, Headline books


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Donahue, M. [WWW],$700, 2005 (Reference updated 2010)

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[WWW], Whirlpool_Rapids_Bridge_2.jpg: Accessed Sept 2010

Author: R.J.Jude (2004), Revised (2005,2010)

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