COME RIGHT IN FOLKS! SEE THE FREAKS! SEE LITTLE KATIE ZEIGLER SMASH SIXTEEN MINUTES! WATCH IN AMAZEMENT AS MICHAEL PHELPS REACHES SPEEDS NEVER BEFORE SEEN! MARVEL AT LIESEL JONES, A LADY SO FAST SHE'D HAVE WON ‘72 OLYMPIC GAMES GOLD EVEN IF SHE HAD SWUM AS A MAN!
I’m pretty sure the average person has no idea just how freakish, how special, a world record holder in swimming now is. They certainly don’t have the foggiest concept of what makes a great athlete. On our blogs we talk about and compare world record performances as if we were kids trading baseball cards, but like children we have little real comprehension of the true magnitude of the achievements. Forget about the world record holders – one has to be a very, very special individual to even qualify for the Olympics, and it isn’t just due to hard work. In preparing my last post about Jim Sorensen I came across where he had to explain to his school’s principal his American record in the 800 meters was a Master’s record, not ‘the’ American record; and how his students asked him if he was going to run at the Beijing Olympics. I have my own experience with this. I still remember watching an East German touched out for the gold in the 1980 Moscow Games by a couple of hundredths of a second and remarking how devastating it must be for the swimmer – only to hear an Aunt, an exceptionally bright and knowledgeable woman, remark “he should have worked harder”. How else can I explain why nearly six out of ten believe a forty year old mother coming back with less than two years training can be one of best sprinters in the world? That they accept she can continue to improve twenty years past her peak? In the movie Good Will Hunting the protagonist is a mathematical prodigy promoted by Fields Medalist Gerard Lambeau, an individual who recognizes Hunting’s talent outstrips even his own prodigious genius. In Amadeus the accomplished composer Salieri similarly shares Lambeau’s shock and dismay when he listens to the genius of Mozart’s music. Is there any one who believes all the two had to do to reach the same level of achievement was work harder and better? Of course not. But why then do the majority of people believe ultimate success at sport can be determined by training methods and learned techniques?
As world records continue to be pushed lower and lower swimming’s pinnacle is increasingly being occupied by the statistical anomalies, the outliers, those one in a hundred million individuals whose physical makeup and biochemistry are best suited to competing in the water. Michael Phelps is a great example of such a freak. At 193 cm (6’4”) and 86½ kgs (195 lbs.) a quick glance would see the typical heavyweight Olympian swimmer. A second and closer look would belie that as his leg inseam is only 81 cm. (32”), a length of leg more befitting a six foot man. This actually helps as there’s less leg for drag but in the absolutely critical arm span category, where the greater the reach the better for propulsion, Phelps’ 201 cms (6’7”) wingspan corresponds more to his theoretical height had he possessed a more normally proportioned body. A great advantage. Sure his size 14 feet make for nice flippers but far higher on the ‘what makes a fast swimmer’ scale is his overall hyperflexibility. Mark Spitz has hyperflexible knees, the ability not only to flex more than usual but to also flex the opposite way, so his legs could operate rather like a dolphin’s tail. It's helpful. In Michael Phelps case all of his joints are hyperflexible, which makes him rather awkward out of the water and notable for an inability to safely perform many dry land exercises such as running and weight training. But in water he quite literally swims like a fish. His coach Bowman also hints at a superbly adapted metabolism by being quoted as saying, “He (Phelps) had been metabolically trained since the age of 7, which is a plus”. Another piece of Phelppian trivia is Phelps has never taken a test to measure his VO² max despite a high reading being almost a precondition for elite status. Perhaps Bowman and Phelps aren’t particularly interested in a test which wouldn’t directly contribute to improved performance – there would be few takers on a bet it isn’t somewhere between 'Wow!' and 'No Freaking Way!' Yet for all this if you talked to his coach he’d probably first mention Phelps’ ‘feel for the water’ as his biggest advantage, a feel which is extraordinary even among world class swimmers. His ability to streamline his body, to come out of a turn faster than anyone else, to have mastered every stroke, is famous in the swimming world. So Phelps has all the ingredients to become a great swimmer plus one other. He’s also noted for his work ethic. There’s a saying “Great athletes are born, and then made better”. Day in and day out Phelps has put in the hours, reportedly not missing a single day in his career, and regularly putting in 70,000 meter weeks. Trying to beat a Freak at his or her own game is pretty nigh unattainable, but for a Normal to beat a Freak when he or she is willing to work hard at their gift – that's simply impossible.
P.S. Technically Liesel would have been disqualified for what would have been an illegal breaststroke back in 1972.