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Rearview Mirror: Swimming and Diving and Drownproofing

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Well, as best as we can figure.

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I have the weird feeling I’ve used this picture before, but I can’t remember.
Georgia Tech Archive/Edward B. Van Voorhees Visual Materials Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/19532)

I would like to preface this with an issue that is very important to me and that greatly influences these historical non-revenue sports looks: Georgia Tech Athletics doesn’t make media guides for Track and Field, Cross Country, or Swimming and Diving anymore. Tech still did for Swimming when I started writing here, but has since discontinued it. There’s plenty of interesting historical things to keep up on, and it’s good to have a go-to place to get athlete and program information. It’s harder now. I, for one, wish they would come back. It would definitely help my put out the highest quality of content on the programs on my deadlines. But, alas, on with the article.


Straight out of the official Georgia Tech Athletics history of the team, the tryout for the first edition of the team in 1918-1919 saw “some of the fastest water splashers that the South has ever turned out and one that would make any Eastern college hustle to beat,” per that year’s Blueprint. As a trained water splasher, I find that quote hilarious, and, if I was a bolder man, I would make that the entire column. But, I’m not, so let’s keep going.

The first team captain, G. R. Fraser, was actually already a well-known swimmer. Southern record holder in both mid-distance and sprint freestyle events, he was commonly regarded as the best swimmer in the South, and it is a shame he has not yet been inducted into the Georgia Swimming Hall of Fame, as, right off the bat, he got Tech into the national swimming scene by challenging the Brooklyn YMCA to a duel meet and getting smacked by the first YMCA team that, well, had a swimming pool. The old media guide calls the performance taking Brooklyn “to the limit,” but the final score of 46-16 belies the true margin. However, this was one of the most prominent programs in the country at the time, so, really, what could one expect from a brand new team? For regional perspective, in their first-ever meet, they met the also-brand-new Clemson Tigers in the basement of the Holtzendorff YMCA building, smoking them in what interestingly and quietly is a score disputed between the two schools’ athletic departments. Tech’s official records note a 50-19 victory, while the Tigers’ media guide notes the Jackets won just 45-19. Spicy. Does this matter at all, really, in the grand scheme of things? Almost certainly not, considering the Clemson team hasn’t existed in almost a decade now - a travesty, but more in place in this old YJR than right now - but something that amuses me. Never forget 1919! Or something.

Sidenote: So much for looking forward to the upcoming weekend’s Tech/Clemson softball series I referenced in that Yellow Jacket Roundup. Within a week, well, the college sports world had, uh, stopped existing.

For those that are less familiar, I probably should have mentioned this in the track article, but points are awarded based on finishing placement, and the goal is to get as many as possible. Usually, this comes with winning relays, which are worth more points, frequently double, and having depth across a variety of events. In cross country, the converse is true, and the goal is to score a golf-like low score. Cool? Cool.

Anyways, at this point, you may be wondering, what events Mr. Fraser held records in, then, if he was so good? That’s a good question, though, because therein lies an interesting note under all of that. You see, our first team captain held not only the 50 Freestyle record, which is perhaps one of the most foundational events in all of swimming, but also the standard in the 220 Yard Freestyle.

To those I did not completely confuse with that measurement of distance, yes, that is weird and unusual. Since pools nowadays come in standard lengths of 25 yards or meters (short course) or 50 meters (long course, Olympic), that would essentially be like swimming 8 laps, starting a ninth, and finishing at the flags instead of the wall in one of today’s pools. However, the rationale behind this strange measurement is not well documented, but 220 yards is roughly equivalent to 200 meters, so my guess is they were swimming yard distances in a meter pool. Long story short, that kicked the bucket, along with other oddballs like the 150 yard backstroke and the 150 yard individual medley, dating from the times pre-1952 when there were just three strokes, rather than the current four, as butterfly did not yet exist. Similarly, there were individual and relay medleys that were 300 yards long. Interestingly, Tech’s only National Swimming Champion to date came in one of those long-gone events, when a man by the name of Dave Young won the 1927 150 yard backstroke. His time of 1:44.00 established a new national record.

The official history of the team interestingly notes the team was colloquially referred to as the “tankmen,” in the first few decades of their existence, which, by all means, were very successful years for the Jackets - from 1925-1936, the Jackets won 10 Southern titles. However, all this success mattered little when the bottom fell out from underneath the economy. As I’ve alluded to before, the Depression hit Tech particularly hard with the excision of the Commerce School, and as finances and enrollment shriveled, there was little Tech could do other than put their minor sports on the chopping block. In the Spring of 1932, per McMath, et al, in Engineering the New South, it was announced that six of Tech’s eleven varsity sports would cease to exist for the upcoming year, with the ones that remained seeing scholarships replaced with loans and other cost-cutting measures, swimming included. However, by 1934, swimming was back, but only for two years, as more austerity forced the 1936 season to be a wash for swimming and baseball. In the end, three of the sports that were cut - golf, tennis, and swimming - made a comeback.

Here’s where a confusing thing arises, though. Institute records and previous histories of Tech clearly state that swimming was cut. However, doing the math on that 1925-1936 span where Tech won championships shows that there could only have been one season where Tech didn’t win a title. However, the team didn’t exist as a varsity sport for three of those seasons. However, there’s a way to reconcile those two seemingly-conflicting facts. Given how many of the athletes stayed around campus in all of the sports that were cut, and how fast the ones that returned to varsity status were able to pick up where they left off, it’s reasonable to believe that the teams stayed loosely organized at some level, just outside the purview and financing of the athletic department. This line of thinking is further evidenced by an effort that spanned the student body to fundraise and return these teams to their former status. Thus, it is not out of the realm of possibility that freshly-graduated-Tech-man-turned-swimming-head-coach Kenneth Thrash, Sr. could still pilot his team to some success at the regional level, but outside the purview of the Athletic Association. Conjecture? Yes. Feasible? Also yes.

It’s somewhat remarkable at all that Thrash stayed at Tech for just four years, given not only that streak of regional championships, but also by his absolutely astounding 24-1 record in dual meets over his four years as a coach, good for a .960 winning percentage. Sure, baseball, softball, or volleyball play that many games in a single season, but I am yet to find a coach with a better success rate in their time on the Flats. The only things that come close are the four football national championships, for obvious reasons, and, even then, those are single seasons in a career. Oh, and did I mention that, though he was a product of Tech and its athletic department, he was a football player for William Alexander, not a swimmer? Honestly, hiring a freshly graduated football letterman with minimal swimming experience to coach your swim team is probably as close as you could come to pulling a reverse of the tried-and-true Bear Bryant Method of Flaunting Scholarship and Recruiting Rules™ - “Twenty of the biggest swimmers you ever saw. They damn near drowned when they put ‘em in the pool, but they could play football,” as per Bobby Dodd.

Thrash may not have stayed at Tech for very long, but, had he stayed longer, Tech wouldn’t have hired a man by the name of Fred “Crankshaft” Lanoue.

Notable in his college days as a diver, rather than a swimmer, Lanoue first came to coach Tech swimming in the second phase of, well, non-existence. When he arrived in 1936, the Heisman Gym and its pool were under construction, thanks to the Works Progress Administration. By 1938, the pool was complete and the team was a varsity sport once more. While Tech joined the Southeastern Conference in 1932, it did not begin sponsoring swimming and diving until 1937. Florida was the undisputed king of the conference in these days, winning the first five titles contested. However, Tech had not forgot its winning ways, either, despite their new hire head coach. In 1942, Lanoue would lead the Jackets to its first SEC crown, and Tech technically won four in a row, coming out of the World War II hiatus with successive championships in 1948, 1949, and 1950. Tech’s team took just one year off during the war, 1943, but Lanoue did not struggle to stay busy during the lean wartime years. As far back as his arrival on the Flats, Crankshaft - so named because of his hobbling gait - had been tinkering with a course he taught called Drownproofing.

Lanoue first taught the course in 1940. The concept seems simple, really - don’t drown. As per GT Living History and discussion with various alumni, including friends and contributors here at From the Rumble Seat, the premise never really did change from that initial ideation: expend little energy over long periods of time. The official Drownproofing card listed the following requirements:

A. Jump in clad, stay up one hour

B. Dive in clad, swim one mile without touching sides or bottom

C. Arm Efficiency - With crossed ankles tied together and then tied to the waist, first stay up half and hour, then swim 100 yds., then untie knots and get out

D. Leg Efficiency - With wrists tied behind back, stay up half and hour, then swim 100 yds., then swim to shallow water to be untied

E. Jump from high board

F. Dive deeply from side then swim across pool underwater

G. Surface dive and recover object in at least 8 ft. of water

H. Do recognizable crawl stroke for pool width

Per drownproofing.com, the technique can be boiled down to a truism:

“Most people have a small amount of positive buoyancy that will enable them to float, but not enough to keep all of the head out of water. By floating in an upright attitude, with the face submerged and only lifting the mouth and nose above the surface when it is necessary to take a breath, it is possible to survive indefinitely, with minimal expenditure of energy.”

When it comes to doing the actual technique,

“Fill your lungs with a good breath of air and float vertically with the back of your head just breaking the surface of the water. Let your arms float slowly towards the surface, with elbows bent, until your hands are in front of your shoulders. With a steady movement, press downwards and back with your hands until your mouth clears the water. As you come up, breath out and inhale as soon as your mouth is above the surface. Repeat every 10 to 12 seconds. You could use a scissors kick with the legs if you prefer, or arms and legs together if you find it helps to maintain a balanced position.”

However, the most vivid colloquial images of drownproofing, and seemingly the most “make or break” - it was a course required to graduate - were the ones involving getting objects from the bottom of the pool with various limitations - bound arms, bound legs, bound arms and legs requiring the use of teeth to grab a ring - and swimming 50 yards underwater across the old Heisman Gym pool.

Becoming more and more notorious (snarky students referred to as “Drowning 101”) as time passed, 1958 was the first year that the course was in the national consciousness. By then, the U.S. Navy had commissioned it to be their water survival training protocol, and, per the T-Book, it was the centerpiece of an article in Readers Digest titled “Nobody Needs to Drown” a few years later in 1960. The military influence on the class clearly runs deep. The U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard both utilize the course, as well, with the Navy Seals’ application of Lanoue’s methods probably the most famous. Ironically it is not Tech students who still take this course on campus, but the US Marine Corps Reserves.

From the Rumble Seat’s own Bill Brockman - reader, baseball contributor, commenter, etc. - put the relationship between the class and its practical military application in good context with his recollection on his experiences in the course, saying the students had “bound legs, then arms, then both while doing dead man’s float to minimize energy use. I think we started with learning the unencumbered float. We were to move forward with easy strokes to get to that island on the horizon after our ship sunk. The tied limbs simulated broken/missing limbs from the battle. We had a lifeguard assigned for both tied stages - I had to be ‘rescued.’”

Afterwards, they had, “practice jumping off the high dive (side of ship) and swim ‘under the burning oil’ to clear water. The underwater swim test was: jump off the end, turn an underwater summersault without pushing off, swim to the other end, turn underwater and return before breathing. You had to do 25 yards to pass, 50 to get an overall A. We could hyperventilate, which helped a lot, although there’s a risk of passing out, so we had a lifeguard for each swimmer. Passing out was worth an A! I made it, but two guys failed to reach 25 yards. McAuley cussed them out in terms that would get him fired today. The next class they both made 50 yards! Before we started he said every successful Tech alum astronaut (John Young) had gotten an A.”

Other skills involved “making a life preserver by removing jeans and tying into a pouch,” while there was “extra credit for reading underwater by cupping air around your eye, as well as treading water with legs only holding a brick overhead.”

Only after his course became famous did Lanoue write a textbook for it. Have a new copy? That might fetch you upwards of $950 on Amazon. Prior to the publication, the course existed mostly in the head of Lanoue and the folks he trained. It was on a training assignment to Parris Island to train marines that the legendary swimming coach and aquatics safety innovator was taken down by a heart attack. Immediately upon his death, he was named to the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame, though the Georgia Swimming Hall of Fame wouldn’t give him the same honor for another five decades. The question of his successor? That, well, was pretty darn straightforward.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.


If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here.