Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Starting Back

Being able to swim butterfly well would be cool. Being able to do a good backstroke roll-over turn and follow up with a few underwater dolphins would also be pretty nifty. Performing either one well would impress any swimmers and lifeguards hanging around at the local pool. Unfortunately I’d also seriously impress myself too if I could do them. Leaving off the increasingly apparent pipe-dream of becoming an accomplished butterflyer I’m left trying to master the turn. Originally I allotted five weeks to accomplish this task, a length of time I felt would be more than adequate for achieving this goal. A year and a half later I’m at the point where I can get three, sometimes four, underwater dolphins coming off the wall – if I’m rested and don’t need to do them in a race. My problem is the turn compresses together into a few seconds several swimming fundamentals such as flexibility, kicking, aerobic conditioning, and streamlining, all of which I’m sadly deficient in and all of which require years of practice for proficiency. My struggles for mastery inevitably led to more swimming which in turn contributed to my uncovering the many and varied problems which permeate my backstroke as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is all great stuff: it’s just it's taking a lot longer than envisioned when I first returned to ‘competitive’ swimming. I was so preoccupied with the various nuances of swimming fast I didn’t really think about trying to master the one remaining facet of backstroke – the start.

One reason why I deliberately left the start to last was because I've always been aware of its heavy emphasis on technique. A backstroke roll-over turn is essentially rolling over into a freestyle flip turn with some kicking away from the wall on the back. It really doesn’t sound all that hard. But a backstroke start is a backwards dive into the water from the water’s surface. Any way you phrase it the start sounds more like a gymnastic diving routine rather than something from swimming. The swimmer launches from the wall propelled by the legs while swinging the arms wide, arching the back and dropping the head backwards in line with the arms. The hands enter the water first followed by the arms, head and then shoulders; all entering at the same point. At the same time the swimmer needs to kick up the legs to bring hips and legs in line with the body so that they too follow the rest of the body through the same hole in the water and complete the dive with the least possible amount of resistance. Once the dive’s momentum starts to slow the swimmer begins to dolphin kick to both maintain speed and return to the surface once, twice, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times or more and then, almost surfaced, commences the flutter kick and a final single arm pull to breach the surface already swimming backstroke in full flight. The video shows this better than I can write.

Now for me my troubles start with the initial thrust from my nearly fifty year old legs. Because I don’t yet possess the explosive leg propulsion and upper body curve needed to consistently clear me completely out of the water I have a tendency to ‘plow’ on the start. Image me in the traditional start position at the blocks and how I’d look if my backwards momentum was not planned but the result of taking a shotgun blast in the chest from short range. That’s what my starts look like much of the time right now. Even on those rare occasions when I do have an acceptable ‘launch’ the clean entry takes me more than a meter under water. For those who know what they’re doing and are planning to spend several seconds under water anyways this isn't a problem. But for me the difficulty lies with that several seconds thingy – because whatever I do upside down underwater it had better be done in no more than a three count. If I’m not at the surface after two I start to run out of enough air to clear my nostrils of inrushing water; and choking oneself at the start of a race is not a recommended race strategy. But like my turns my starts will improve. Slowly ... very slowly, but they’ll improve. It’ll just take some time and effort.

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