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“Take your marks!” the starter calls. Eight swimmers crouch down on their starting blocks. They wait in silence, staring at the smooth, gleaming water. Suddenly, a loud horn screeches through the arena. The swimmers leap forward, diving into the water with power and grace. The race has begun.
Thanks to the Olympic Games, millions of people have watched the exciting starts of swimming races. But swimming is not only a competitive sport. It is also a popular activity that people of all ages enjoy for keeping fit and having fun. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise. It improves blood circulation and builds strong muscles. Competitive swimming is one of the most popular Olympic sports, with events in butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and individual medley. In addition to these individual events, swimmers take part in relays.

LOTS OF PLACES TO SWIM
People can swim in any body of water that is large enough for them to move freely. Many people swim in indoor or outdoor pools. You can find swimming pools in many schools, recreation centers, and health clubs. Many communities maintain pools for local residents. People also swim in ponds, lakes, rivers, and even oceans.

SWIMMING SAFETY
To be safe in water, you must know how to swim. In North America, swim clubs, community centers, schools, and other facilities offer swimming lessons and teach water safety. Swimming lessons can give you the skills and confidence to be a safe, efficient swimmer.
For beginning swimmers, there are many safety hazards, even in pools. Swim only in areas protected by lifeguards. Never swim by yourself. In an emergency, a swimming partner can notify a lifeguard immediately. Only experienced swimmers should consider swimming in oceans, rivers, and lakes. Powerful waves, tides, and currents can be very dangerous. Always respect the power of nature.
Learning to swim and respecting the rules of water safety are basic to many water sports. You must be a good swimmer to participate in sports such as surfing, waterskiing, scuba diving, or water polo.

BASIC SWIMMING STROKES
Swimmers propel themselves through the water by moving their arms and legs. These motions are called strokes. The most common strokes are the crawl, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and sidestroke. All but the sidestroke are used in competitive swimming.
The crawl, also called the freestyle, is the fastest stroke. Swimmers lie on the water facing the bottom of the pool. They move their arms forward, one at a time, in a circular motion. They also kick their legs and move their heads from side to side to breathe as they go.
The backstroke is the only stroke done on the back. It resembles an upside-down crawl stroke. Swimmers float faceup. They reach up over their heads with one arm at a time, moving their arms backward in a circular motion. They kick their legs just as they do in the crawl.
For the breaststroke and the butterfly stroke, swimmers move both arms forward at once while facing the bottom of the pool. The movement in the butterfly is broad, with the arms arching forward from the shoulders and hitting the water with force. The movement in the breaststroke is shorter, with bent arms sweeping outward from the chest and then back to the chest.
In the sidestroke, swimmers balance their bodies on their right or left side. They use their two arms to move themselves forward while kicking their legs in a scissors-like motion. The sidestroke is used mainly for recreation and as a lifesaving technique.
The dog paddle is a basic stroke often used by beginning swimmers. In this stroke, swimmers keep their heads out of the water. They cup their hands and move their arms underwater in a circular motion while kicking. When one hand is extended forward from the chest, the other hand is pulled back.

OLYMPIC COMPETITION
Swimming races were held at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. They have been part of all Olympics since then. The success of early Olympic swimmers helped popularize the sport around the world. Today, Olympic swimmers compete in more than 30 individual and team events.
Hawaiian American swimmer Duke Kahanamoku won three gold and two silver Olympic medals from 1912 to 1924. Then he traveled around the world teaching people how to swim and promoting surfing.
American swimmer Gertrude Ederle won one gold and two bronze medals in 1924. Two years later, she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, from France to England. She arrived home in New York City to front-page headlines and a ticker-tape parade!
In 1972, American swimmer Mark Spitz made history by winning seven gold medals. He broke world records in all seven events and won more gold medals at a single Olympics than anyone else.
Since 1984, women have competed for Olympic medals in synchronized swimming. In this sport, pairs or teams of swimmers perform artistic and athletic moves to music. Swimmers from the United States and Canada dominated the early years of this competition at the Olympics. They won the gold and silver medals in all of the events from 1984 through 1996.

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