I’ve always known technique is one of the preeminent factors in determining how fast someone can swim. Yet despite this as time passes and I learn more its importance continues to climb. That’s an opinion many of the world’s top coaches share. Way back when I first swam as a youngster technical skills weren’t really on the radar for me. I simply assumed there were those who couldn’t swim very well, others that could, a handful like me who could swim really fast, and then the rare few who could swim really, really fast. I thought it was all in the genes so to speak. Now in hindsight I can wonder if my early success was more due to the fact I was coached my first year by Archie McKinnon, a George Haines-like figure in Canadian swimming, than my own innate talent. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
No surprise then on my return I was happy to take advantage of the team’s coaching by attending every clinic offered by my club. Yet always underlying my efforts was the idea that, aside from my fly of course, I only needed to tinker with my strokes. In this I was sorely mistaken. Just how mistaken was driven home one practice where we did a set of freestyle stroke counts in a long course pool. I finished the first pair with counts of 39 and a 53 for fists only, which turned out to be significantly better than the numbers the rest were announcing as their own. I was figuratively patting myself on the back when, with our set resuming, our coach leaned over to Doug standing next to me and in a normal voice asked him what his own counts were. “Ah, 28 or so swim ... and 40 fist” he responded. A simple nod was Brad’s only response, his casual acknowledgment providing ample proof he’d fully expected those numbers. It came as a profound shock someone could be so much more efficient at swimming than I. My deficiencies meant I would never compete along side our elite masters with what I had; and made it blindingly clear wholesale changes to my strokes were necessary – mere tinkering was not enough. So a couple of weeks later I bit the bullet, ripped my strokes apart, and started from scratch with several suggestions for each stroke from Brad.
A year later has seen some progress. My breaststroke kick has shown a profound improvement to the point where it’s now a ‘good’ kick technically speaking. Much of the improvement has to be credited to Alexander Technique which has made huge strides in bringing back my hip flexibility and thus allowing me the proper kicking motion. My pull, on the other hand, requires considerable work to bring it to a point where my drag coefficient becomes acceptable. Overall body position is also a problem, as is getting both pull and kick together into a cohesive and fluid undulation that moves me forward rather than up and down.
If my breast has shown solid improvement my back has been the opposite. I’ve better technique in the various individual facets of the stroke such as catch, pull, arm placement, finish, kick, etc. but, like breaststroke, I’ve been unable to tie them all together into one synergistic motion. Paradoxically I believe the fault lies here in the fact my natural backstroke comes the closest to the ideal out of all my strokes, resulting in conflicts and/or confusion for me when I unconsciously relapse into habit during a race. Of course lots of work remains; especially in delivering a solid, rearward directed pull and inducing more shoulder roll for my catch. But integrating all my separate parts is my primary goal for now. Also my lack of strength is very evident in my pull, often causing me to deliberately fall away from proper form just to give my muscles some rest. Hopefully with time and more work this will pass.
Now my fly. Jeepers, what can I say? Originally I planned on spending five weeks to master the basics of the stroke. Two years later I can only say I’m confident this will be the year it all comes together and I’ll finally have a legitimate 100 fly. I can boast a real dolphin kick now, even if it pales in comparison to the kick of an actual fly specialist, and my integration of pull and kick is reasonably fair. Emphasis this season is on my head position, pulling rearward rather than down immediately after my catch, and staying on a flatter plane in the water. But my lack of strength really shows up here.
Finally my free. My coach has told me he believes this stroke will eventually become my most competitive when I can work out my problems. That might be some time away. Besides it's hard to believe when I can’t even come close to breaking a minute swimming short course meters. On the other hand watching a video of me trying to swim arms swung out flat and elbows low with a pronounced lope I can see there’s considerable room for improvement. It has meant a major effort in redesigning my pull but I can sense progress slowly coming my way. I’ve even come around to understand what Brad means when he refers to incorporating a “shoulder shrug” in my stroke. Plus, in addition to the above, I also need to induce more body roll and better coordination into my stroke, and finish with my hands by my hips. Right now, however, everything feels very artificial and forced. Much, much work remains.
A lot to push through, but I feel I’m in the right place for my long term plans. Because of the efforts I’ve been putting into revamping my strokes I wasn’t going to be setting impressive new personal bests whatever I did. With speed work not being conducive to mastering new techniques, and the need to practice my new strokes as much as possible, I think my 30,000 meter weekly target is very compatible with my immediate needs. More pounding away in the pool will be good for building my strength up too. So onward I paddle. Time will tell if I’m on the right path.