Swimsuit Issues

At the turn of the century, one of the most popular swimming events was "the plunge." It's not anymore, and for good reason.

Here's how it worked: A contestant would dive into the water from a standing position, then remain motionless for 60 seconds; then he'd swim underwater as far as he could without taking a breath. England's John Arthur Jarvis won the plunge at the 1904 Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) championships, swimming 75 feet, 4 inches. But over the years some swimmers pushed themselves too hard, either passing out and bobbing to the surface or actually drowning. The plunge was an Olympic event in 1904, but by 1930 the ASA had banned the sport.

Background on the plunge is included in The Complete Book of the Olympics, which is part of the collection at the Henning Library at the International Swimming Hall of Fame/Aquatic Complex in Fort Lauderdale. Husband and wife Preston and Rita Levy, librarians and researchers, keep the records straight, which is no easy task considering that the library, the largest of its kind, is the international repository for records and history on swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming (which, by the way, became an organized sport in 1940).

"As you can see, we're overflowing," says Preston. Indeed, a loftlike balcony is home to rows of bulging bookshelves and a room the size of a walk-in closet for special collections. Downstairs are a few reading carrels, a large table for spreading out documents, and the Levys' work area.

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The general public can access the nonprofit facility, but it's used mostly for research. For a fee the Levys dig up information for scholars all over the world. Preston recently found information on the history of competition swimsuits for a seventh-grader from Oregon doing a school report and just happened to be gathering similar data and photographs for an Aquatics International magazine story on Olympic swimwear.

The library's oldest items are located in the special collections room, the contents of which include a crumbling copy of the (British) Amateur Swimming Association Handbook of 1897 and the personal scrapbooks of dozens of famous swimmers. One details the 1935 tour of Japan by Katherine Rawls, a Fort Lauderdale-based Olympic swimmer.

Nearby is a binder full of swimming bubble-gum cards, most from the early 1900s. "The swimmers were big heroes," Preston says as he casually thumbs through cards featuring famous swimmers in skintight suits. "In its time it was daring stuff."

-- John Ferri

The Henning Library is located at 1 Hall of Fame Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 954-468-1580.

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