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Cornell University

History of Swim Requirement

Objective of the swim requirement:

The objective 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 requirement:

Drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide and the leading cause of death for children.  The CDC reports 11 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 and the children did not learn to swim.

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 unpleasant, can almost always be overcome.

Article from The Cornell Daily Sun

Origins of the test:

Male - 1905 - In the fall of 1905 Colonel 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. 

Past 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 when the building opened in 1872. The pool was 7 yds long X 4 yds wide. 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 [88 yards total]: 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)

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. Sometime around 2016, it was simplified to 75yds any choice.

In the Fall of 2023, the Faculty Advisory Committee on Athletics and Physical Education, through research in collaboration with various institutions and national organizations, modernized Cornell’s swim requirement with an emphasis on developing a requirement focused towards swimming competency to prevent accidental drowning, and not proficiency. 

Based on expert advice, the committee implemented a resolution creating the Cornell Water Competency Graduation Requirement, as defined by the American Red Cross. Within this new requirement, students must, 1) step or jump in the water over your head, 2) return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute, 3) turn around in a full circle and find an exit, 4) swim 25 yard to the exit without stopping. 5) exit from the water

Currently, students have the option to attempt the new Cornell Water Competency Graduation Requirement described above, or the previous requirement of 75 yds – feet first jump in the deep end, surface, then complete three lengths of the pool using any style or stroke with no time limit.