New Tricks For An Old … Grasshopper

This week the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials are taking place in Omaha, Neb. Since I recently began swimming again after decades away from the pool, I’ve been watching with extreme interest.

Every four years, it seems like the technology for broadcasting the Olympics—and even the Olympic Trials—gets better and better, and the programming folks do a better and better job of packaging it. There are some amazing slow-motion shots of water splashing around the swimmers as they cut through it, and excellent underwater videos that allow the viewer to dissect all manner of stroke mechanics. Throw in a DVR that allows me to replay short clips over and over again, and I’m in kinesiology heaven.

For me, it’s a chance to see how to swim “right,” and maybe how to figure out to fix my own flawed mechanics.

Some time very early in my swimming career, I developed an odd way of kicking while swimming freestyle: instead of the usual up-and-down flutter kick, my legs crossed over each other in kind of a twisting, propeller kick. (OK, “propeller” only works as a metaphor if you can conceive of a propeller that reverses direction every 180 degrees.) I suppose what I do is kind of a modified “two-beat” kick, rather than the more standard “six-beat” kick.

This page explains the differences between a two-beat kick and a six-beat kick.

And for a real-life example of the difference, check out this video of Australian record-holder Jessica Ashwood in a recent 800-meter freestyle event. She uses a two-beat kick for most of the lap, but when she gets to within 10-15 feet of the wall, you suddenly see the splash at her feet as she switches to a six-beat kick (I suggest fast-forwarding to about 8:15 in the video [not the race time] for a good view.)

The two-beat examples above don’t show my two-beat “crossover” style. In my case, I guess the crossover works to kind of stabilize the rest of my body as my arms pull through their motions. It’s certainly not something I ever consciously tried to do. The more I think about it, now, the more I think that it might just have developed out of laziness—by simply not focusing enough on kicking properly.

I’m sure some coaches along the way tried to wean me from the habit, but by the time I got to high school and college, it was pretty firmly ingrained in how I swam, probably too much so to try to change it.

I’m not sure it was even detrimental; after all, my legs were still kicking, but there was just more of a side-to-side, criss-cross motion than an up-and-down motion. And it’s possible that, late in my swimming career—when I’d switched from distance freestyle to sprint freestyle—I used a more standard flutter kick when I was going all-out in races. I can’t remember now if I even thought about it by then.

All I know is that now, when I allow myself to swim naturally, without thinking about it, the legs twist around each other in a criss-cross two-beat kick. With each stroke, the shin of one leg bangs against the calf of the other leg, then they switch positions with the next stroke.

I’ve been watching the Trials to see if anybody else in the distance events did something similar, and lo and behold, I thought I saw some of it in Leah Smith’s 400 freestyle. Maybe I’m not a freak after all. I love the underwater views.

But since I’m still getting back into swimming after basically three decades off, I feel like I have a chance to change some of my old, bad habits. Every time I go to the pool now, I spend at least some of the time focusing on doing a real flutter kick while I swim. It’s actually something I have to concentrate on, and my little brain doesn’t have enough voltage to do it for a whole workout, not yet anyway. But I can definitely feel the difference in the propulsion power when I use a “normal” flutter kick, so it’ll be a great skill to learn.

I’ll Fly Away

Another area I’m trying to work on is the butterfly stroke. I’ve never been a good butterflyer; not sure if it was a problem with timing or strength, both of which are critical to do the stroke right. I’ve always loved watching good swimmers do fly, though, and I’ve resolved to try and improve my own stroke.

Actually, way back when, I thought I was OK at butterfly. And then someone had a video camera at a practice once, and I got to see what I looked like. My elbows were bent, my hands were too close to my body, and I honestly looked like a grasshopper. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever witnessed, and I probably never tried to swim butterfly again in the last two years of my swimming career after that.

Now, though, in my new/old body, I feel like I can make some changes. And even though swimming butterfly is about the hardest thing for me to do these days, I set a concrete goal of doing a total of four 100s fly in one workout by the end of July. Every time I get a practice lane to myself, I work on that, too, focusing on spreading my arms as wide as possible to avoid the dreaded grasshopper effect.

I have a long way to go; I can barely make it through four 50s, and the difference between a 50 butterfly and a 100 butterfly, is well … let’s say that after 50 yards, this butterfly turns back into a caterpillar.

But, I’ll keep working at it. It’s nice to have some goals.



2 thoughts on “New Tricks For An Old … Grasshopper

  1. Glad you are back in the pool. Many subtle changes to all of the strokes over the last 30+ years. Enjoy the trip back….

    • Thanks Rich! One interesting change is that they’re doing “body dolphins” off the wall in every stroke now. It seems like it started with backstroke, but now everyone does at least one after each turn, even in breaststroke.

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