Who invented the Aussie “crawl”? The answer will surprise you

By Christine Retschlag 16 May 2023
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Swimmers the country over can thank Solomon Islander Alick Wickham for their “crawl”.

Early morning in the Solomon Islands and a tropical downpour carries four shirtless men in a dugout canoe past my beach hut.

In an hour, I will be immersed in these same warm waters, tracing the swim of Alick Wickham, a man you’ve likely never heard of but whose style of swimming inspired the stroke that’s taught at learn-to-swim classes across Australia. The Solomon Islander introduced his crawling style of swim stroke – later renamed the Australian Crawl and then freestyle – to Oz.

This splashy story starts on the tiny island of Hobupeka, near Munda in the Solomons’ remote western province.

It was here that Wickham used to swim 1 kilometre across Roviana Lagoon to school – he was too impatient to wait for the boat that would otherwise transport him.

In the late 1890s Wickham – who, at the tender age of seven years, arrived in Australia on his father’s trading schooner – was working as a “house boy” in Sydney and was swimming in the Bronte Beach sea baths when prominent Australian coach George Farmer spotted him and shouted “look at that kid crawling!”

Alick Wickham, ca. 1910-1920 / photographer Crown Studios, Adelaide. Image credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Charlie Bell, who raced against him, said Wickham “swam with his head held fairly high, turning it quickly from side to side breathing with each complete stroke, his…head apparently not getting wet. The entry of his arms was short and towards the centre line of the body with the elbows well bent. His arm action was very fast and short. Each arm performed a symmetrical action with the head turning from side to side as if breathing on each side, but only breathing on one side to each stroke.”

Wickham went on to become a champion swimmer and diver and played a role in the development of body surfing. He died in 1967 and was inducted into the Sport of Australia Hall of Fame in 1999.

Five-time world record holder Australian swimmer Tracey Wickham is a descendent.

Rose Bay Amateur Swimming Club, Champion team, 1912–1913. Alick Wickham is seated at bottom right. Image credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Back in the Solomon Islands I am relying on the spirit of Wickham, and a fellow Solomon Islander Danny Kava, 29, to propel me across this body of water.

In the support boat sits my cheer squad, Garedd Porowai, with whom Danny and I first scout the normally glassy lagoon for the prevailing current.

The day before, on another island, a local fisherman is taken by a crocodile in an attack not before witnessed around these parts.

It’s a tragic, random incident and the villagers are in shock when we arrive, sending out hunting parties to locate the crocodile and the body.

Solomon Islanders believe if someone is taken by a crocodile it means they have done something wrong. 

Garedd snaps me back to the task at hand with his pidgin English.

“Iu save doim!” (Translation: You can do it.)

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And with that, we kick off. Danny swims beside me Solomon Islander style – a la Wickham – head out of water, arms thrashing furiously.

I’m clad in swim cap, goggles and fins, head down, contemporary Australian style. It’s a meeting of currents, cultures, a lick of courage and a whole heap of chutzpah.

Just over halfway across, passengers on a local yacht cheer in support at the spectacle, more accustomed to dug-out canoes than a white woman and her local companion carrying the weight of a champion swimmer across the lagoon.

Danny is sucking in big belly breaths and so am I.

“Iu save doim,” I repeat to myself.

The water is around 30ºC and tiny stingers prick my skin, but in under 20 minutes we clamber ashore. Legs all jellyfish, lungs empty, hearts full.

Crossing Roviana Lagoon by boat, Solomon Islands. Image credit: Christine Retschlag

Half an hour later, as I cross the lagoon in a boat, a bottlenose dolphin frolics in my wake. It’s a good omen Danny says. Garedd agrees.

Back on the beach I run into Uncle Barney Paulsen who I’d met the day before while on a WWII tour of the island.

I tell him I’ve just swam across Roviana Lagoon, following in the wake of Wickham, and ask him if he’s ever done it.

“No,” he says with a smile. “Too many barracudas in there, and they have lots of big teeth.”

“Iu save doim,” I reply, beaming back.

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If you’d like to emulate Alick Wickham’s swim, visit during the annual Roviana Lagoon Festival. Find out more at Visit Solomons.