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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 1, 2008

Swim class

In this 1923 photo, approximately 60 students line the State Gym pool, awaiting swim lessons. For many years, all students had to learn to swim before graduating. The mandatory swim requirement disappeared sometime in the 1970s. Photo from University Archives, ISU Library.

A Sesquicentennial look back

No swimsuits required

by Diana Pounds

Surely, it was one of the more unusual classrooms in the history of Iowa State. Every hour, 80 to 100 young men, sans clothing, padded into the basement of State Gym and slipped into the pool.

Each man knew what he had to do and once he did it, he'd never have to set (bare) foot in that class again. The task was simply this: Swim 100 yards.

The swim didn't have to be a thing of beauty, according to Jerry Symons, whose 40-plus-year career at Iowa State began in 1964 when he signed on as a P.E. swim instructor. The student could dogpaddle, back float, frog kick, do whatever was necessary to stay afloat while achieving the required distance.

Symons taught eight one-hour swim classes a day. He recalls the State Gym pool always teeming with students who'd arrived on campus without swimming skills and landed in his one-credit class.

Perhaps the most curious part of ISU's mandatory swim requirement was the naked nature of the lesson. Symons offers a couple of explanations for a practice that was quite common at schools and universities around the country at the time.

One issue was hygiene, he said. Officials didn't want students splashing around the delicately filtered pool in clothes that had last soaked in a lake or farm pond. A second issue was money. At the time, universities traditionally supplied uniforms for P.E. classes, he said. However, many schools apparently saw little need to ante up for swim suits ... for men, anyway. (ISU women also faced a swim requirement, but they suited up for class.)

Naked swimming at Iowa State came to an end during Symons' first year, when some classes were moved to the new Beyer Hall pool. Symons recalls the university purchased "ugly blue suits."

Symons, who served as the Cyclones' diving coach and taught a very popular ISU scuba class for several decades, left another legacy at Iowa State. At his suggestion, the deep end of the State Gym pool floor was raised to a comforting 4 feet. "It's easier for non-swimmers to work if they can touch the bottom," he explained.

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Sesqui series

Inside is celebrating the sesquicentennial with a yearlong series of photos and articles that look back at Iowa State traditions, people and places.