First, participants had to climb up a pole and slide back down before getting into the water. Then they swam out to a barrage of boats, which they had to climb up on, and then run across to get back into the water. This was followed by more swimming, and then yet another group of boats, which they swam beneath to reach the finish line. This was presumably after they spun around a bat 10 times and passed the orange back and forth without using their hands, of course.
Via Wiki Commons
Their hands were busy grab-assing.
But there's another twist: There were no swimming pools in turn of the century France big enough to play a good game of Miscellaneous Water Bullshit, so they had to hold the event in the Seine River, which, at the time, was the outlet to the Paris sewer system overflow. Because of this "oversight," many of the competitors also had to struggle against the current of the river, a dangerous and exhausting process for any swimmer, even when it's not mostly comprised of Frenchman poo.
"I had trois fiber shakes this morning!"