History Of The Cornell Swim Test

Object of the swim test:

The object of the swim test is to ensure that the student is able to survive and make their way to safety in case they are in a drowning situation.

Rationale for the test:

Drowning is the 5th leading cause of unintentional death in the United States overall and the 2nd leading cause of unitentional death in children.  The CDC reports 10 people/day die from drowning.

Most drownings occur in situations where the parents of the victim were non-swimmers. Because they feared the water, they passed that fear on to their children.

If we teach people how to swim and make it a life skill, that will in some ways help to break the cycle of parents who do not know how to swim and therefore do not encourage their children to learn to swim. Fear of the water, although unpleasent, can almost always be overcome.

Origins of the test:

Male - 1905 - In the fall of 1905 Captain Frank Barton (Yes, that Frank Barton) instituted the test. He stated: "In view of the fact that recent wars have conclusively demonstrated that a soldier who cannot swim is so much dead timber in the command, and the United States now refuses to graduate from West Point or Annapolis cadets who are unable to swim, no student will be credited with a passing mark for spring term's drill who has not previously passed an examination in swimming satisfactory to the Professor of Physical Culture." This practically made swimming a requirement for graduation since Military drill was required of all male 4 year students. (Oswego Daily Palladium, Nov 28, 1905). Cornell was the first college in the country (other than the service academies) to require a swim test.

Female - 1920 - Al Gantert (Director of Physical Education 1978-2009) had a number of discussions with Dorothy Bateman (First Director of Sports and Physical Education 1920-1962) before she passed away. Dorothy instituted the women's swimming test in 1920. She stated that she felt it was an important part of a well-rounded education for a young woman. 

Requirements of the test:

The men's and women's tests were originally different requirements and distances.

Men - I have found no records of the original test requirements for men.

Women - Sage Hall pool was originally built in 1872 when the building opened. The original women's test was described as follows:

"Requirements of the test which have been handed down to posterity are: Swim around the pool 4 times: float for 30 seconds: jump into the pool and come up smiling. An alumna who had learned to swim in Sage pool once wrote to the Physical Education department that, as a result of her instruction, she was unable to swim a standard length, and could only swim around and around in an imaginary small rectangle."(Cornell Daily Sun, Oct 16, 1940)

Distance of the test:

Men's original test - I have found no records of the original test requirements for men.

Women's original test - Sage Hall pool was 7 yds long X 3 yds wide. 4 circuits of the pool equaled 80 yds ( 7+3+7+3 =20 yds x 4)

By early 1970's, the tests requirements were as follows -

Men - Jump into deep water and swim 2 lengths of two different strokes. (50 yds)

Women - Jump into deep water, tread water for 1 minute and swim 4 lengths of two different strokes (100 yds)

Tests standardized in 1975 - Jump into deep water and swim 3 lengths (75 yds) continuously.  25 yds on the front, 25 yds on the back, and 25 yds choice.