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Human beings have been swimming for thousands of years. One of the earliest representations of swimming is an ancient Egyptian wall relief that shows soldiers of Pharaoh Ramses II (reigned 1290-1224 bc) pursuing their enemies by swimming across the Orontes River between ancient Egypt and Asia Minor.
Swimming was highly esteemed in ancient Greece and Rome, especially as a form of training for warriors. In Japan, competitions were held as early as the 1st century bc. In Europe, swimming was less popular during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), when immersion in water was sometimes associated with the recurrent epidemic diseases of the time.
The crawl stroke was probably invented independently in various areas of the world several hundred years ago. Swimmers in South America and the South Pacific used crawl-like strokes long before they were used in Europe. Native Americans also used an overarm crawl stroke. In 1844 two members of the Native American Ojibwa tribe named The Flying Gull and Tobacco traveled to England, where they defeated local champions and became national celebrities.
By the 19th century European misconceptions about the dangers of swimming had been dispelled. In the late 19th century amateur swimming clubs began conducting competitions in the United States and Britain. In the United States, colleges and universities such as Yale University, Indiana University, and the University of Southern California played an important role in spreading interest in swimming as a competitive sport. In 1875 Matthew Webb of Great Britain became the first person to swim across the English Channel. Webb swam between Dover, England, and the coast of France near Calais, where the channel is more than 32 km (20 mi) in width. By 1896 swimming had become well established. It was one of the sports at the first modern Olympic Games, held that year in Athens, Greece.