Every morning I get up, turn on BBC News, and put in a few minutes of much needed back stretches and abdominal crunches. A couple of days ago I was rewarded with a short blurb on Michael Phelps and the possibility of him beating Mark Spitz’s record in Beijing. That’s what she said. Obviously she was talking about Phelps bettering the seven gold medals Mark Spitz won in Munich and towards the end of the piece she finally came out and said this, but her opening remark was limited to the topic of Michael Phelps breaking Mark Spitz’s record. I immediately took issue with this. Not only is Phelps faster, much faster, in every one of Mark Spitz’s seven gold medal, world record setting events but his competition today would also leave Spitz behind in their wake. A couple of prominent swimmers have publicly questioned the possibility of Phelps achieving eight gold medals at Beijing and with very good reasons: Stefan Nystrand and Pieter Van den Hoogenband in the 100 free, Peter Vanderkay and Grant Hackett in the 200 free, Tae-Hwan Park, Larsen Jensen, and Grant Hackett again in the 400; Ryan Lochte in the 200 and 400 IM; Aaron Peirsol along with a host of swimmers in the 100 back, and Lochte and Peirsol together in the 200; and last but not least Ian Crocker in the 100 fly. In reserve there are several more men from all parts of the globe close enough to know that with a breakthrough swim they too could be standing atop the podium at Beijing. Beyond the fact both Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz are men, American, dominate the sport, and will be competing in several Olympic swimming events there’s nothing comparable between them at all.
I did appreciate, however, the clip they used to open the report. It was a half-torso shot showing Phelps slicing through the water on his stomach with his arms held in a streamlined position. He was kicking and clearly moving fast. I’m rapidly coming to the belief swimming’s biggest change over the past forty or so years is not so much in stroke or turn techniques as in the much heavier emphasis on kicking to provide more propulsive force. When I swam as a child the generally accepted rule-of-thumb had kicking limited to contributing up to a maximum of around 15% of a swimmer’s forward motion – and that was for the sprint events. Kicking's primary purpose was only to maintain a correct body position to minimize drag. Now we’re using better kicking for better speed. At least that’s what I believe, and to put theory into practice I’ve made kicking, especially dolphin kicking, a much higher priority in my training. I understand this will take time. Bob Bowman has talked about the fact he and Michael decided to work on his turns after reviewing his Athens performance and it took three years before those turns stunned the swimming world at last year’s FINA World Championships (OK, officially it was only the Australians’ who publicly announced the need to ‘catch up’ but I’m sure the rest of the world were thinking the very same thing). Jonathan Miller, a Canadian backstroker who reached national contender status and who has articles in both the USMS and the MSC websites, has said it took him six years to transition his kick from being one of the weakest areas of his stroke to his most competitive. I’ve only been working on my kick for three months so there’s still a long way to go but I’ve already seen measurable improvement. Not a whole lot certainly: during one recent kick set Ian caught up and passed me so quickly I checked to see if he was wearing fins. He wasn’t. Lots and lots of work to do.