A Revolution That Began With a Kick

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

Even longtime swimming coaches profess to being baffled by the more than three dozen world records broken in the last 18 months in pools around the world. They wonder how to fully explain such a sudden and widespread explosion of speed in a sport contested since the first Olympics more than a century ago.

The answer, they say, cannot lie solely in the latest high-tech swimsuits introduced amid a swirl of controversy this winter, because the world-record smashing began at last year's world championships -- long before the newest of the newfangled apparel came out.

Swimmers, coaches and scientists say it is impossible to pinpoint one explanation. They cite many contributing factors, ranging from professional training groups that have sprouted across the United States to greater access to underwater cameras and other advanced technology.

But some say the most significant breakthrough has been a revival of a swimming maneuver developed more than 70 years ago by one of the physicists who worked on the atomic bomb.

Though utilized for decades, the underwater dolphin kick had not been fully exploited by the swimming mainstream until Olympic megastar Michael Phelps and a few other stars began polishing it -- and crushing other swimmers with it -- in recent years. Some say the revival has caused a quiet sensation that has been largely drowned out by the reaction to the suits, whose tightness, futuristic fabric and seam-free design make swimmers sleeker and more streamlined.

It is the use of the dolphin kick, coaches point out, that keeps swimmers where they can best take advantage of whatever advantages the suits offer: underwater.

"You cannot succeed without this skill," said Mark Schubert, the head coach and general manager of USA Swimming's national team.

"It's a weapon," said Jonty Skinner, the performance science director for the U.S. national team.

"It's been a quantum-leap difference," said Phelps's longtime coach, Bob Bowman. "Michael's going 13 meters underwater [using the kick] instead of five. That was what he did that Ian Thorpe didn't."

Bowman was referring to Phelps's demolition of Thorpe's world record in the 200-meter freestyle last year, an achievement that stunned fans at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia. The mark set by the now-retired Thorpe, the greatest swimmer of his era, had been considered virtually untouchable before Phelps's swim.

But Bowman said the difference in Phelps's record race (1 minute 43.86 seconds) and Thorpe's 2001 effort (1:44.06) was plain: Phelps stayed underwater longer off the turns, executing the undulating motion with his entire body that is designed to mimic a dolphin's use of its flipper. It wasn't that Thorpe did not use the dolphin kick. All elite freestylers have for years, rather than the old-fashioned flutter kick. But Thorpe came to the surface earlier throughout his race, dolphin-kicking less and relying more on his freestyle stroke.

The problem for Thorpe? When executed properly, experts say, the underwater dolphin kick is faster than any stroke except a full-out freestyle sprint over 50 meters.

Phelps's turns and underwater kicking were the difference, Bowman said. "Free-swimming 200 straight meters, Ian would probably win handily."

Also known as the fly kick because of its connection with the butterfly stroke, the underwater dolphin kick has become so important, some coaches contend, it has earned its own classification.

"There are now five strokes," Schubert said. "The fifth stroke is the underwater dolphin kick."

Origins of the Kick

The underwater dolphin kick attracted the interest of swimming innovators as early as the 1930s. The late Volney C. Wilson explored its possibilities before diving into later work on nuclear fission and the atomic bomb, according to David Schrader, a research professor at Marquette University who is Wilson's biographer.

Schrader said Wilson, an alternate on the 1932 Olympic water polo team who studied fish propulsion at a Chicago aquarium, claimed to have shown the kick to Johnny Weissmuller, a training mate at the Illinois Athletic Club.

"Weissmuller reproduced it perfectly, but was not impressed by it," said Schrader in a phone interview, recalling a conversation with Wilson.

Indeed, the kick did not immediately take off. For years, swimmers relied on the flutter kick in the freestyle. The dolphin kick has always been associated with the butterfly, which was not contested in the Olympics until 1956.

One of the first swimmers to turn heads with the underwater dolphin kick was David Berkoff, a Harvard graduate who became known for the "Berkoff Blastoff." In 1988, Berkoff set several world records in the 100 backstroke by dolphin-kicking for 35 meters underwater at the start of the race. When rivals began doing the same, FINA, the sport's international governing body, acted quickly, banning underwater swimming in the backstroke for more than 10 meters, then later, 15 meters.

Seven years later, Arizona-based swim coach Bob Gillet urged his young butterfly star, Misty Hyman, not only to do the dolphin kick underwater as long as she could, but also to swim on her side to enhance the stroke's effects. By 1997, she was winning butterfly races by swimming 35 meters underwater.

A year later, FINA banned swimming underwater more than 15 meters for the butterfly and freestyle. (In the breaststroke, swimming underwater has been banned since the 1950s; however, since 2005, competitors have been allowed one downward dolphin kick off the turns.)

'We All Studied Him'

Despite the success of Berkoff, Hyman and others, few coaches were tempted to try to maximize the available 15 meters of underwater opportunity. Some looked at the success of Berkoff and Hyman as something of a fluke, figuring that extra time underwater would provide only temporary gains. They thought swimmers would surge ahead but fade at the end of races out of pure exhaustion, particularly in races longer than 100 meters.

They also worried about safety; no one wanted swimmers passing out during practice while trying to hold their breath longer than usual.

And because the kick was executed underwater, coaches added, it was a difficult skill to teach and evaluate. No one really knew the perfect way to do it. No one really knew whether it would be a big plus or not. So for years, many coaches and athletes worked on it only perfunctorily.

"Nobody figures out what's faster until somebody goes faster using it, then all of the coaches sit in the video room saying, 'How are we going to beat this guy?' " Schubert said.

Among the first swimmers to perfect the maneuver within the 15-meter limit, Schubert said, was American Neil Walker, who used to frustrate four-time Olympic gold medal winner Lenny Krayzelburg in backstroke races in 25-meter pools (as opposed to the Olympic 50-meter distance) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the extra turns, Walker could routinely defeat the more acclaimed Krayzelburg, surging ahead in the underwater portion of races.

"We all studied him," Schubert said. "He was the first great dolphin kicker. We all studied his underwater technique and copied it."

Then there was Phelps.

In August 2002, Phelps broke the 400 individual medley record in a close race against teammate Erik Vendt at the U.S. championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In that race, Schubert recalled, Phelps -- then a rising teenage star -- passed Vendt in the last 50 meters by catapulting ahead with his dolphin kick. Back then, however, Phelps was just learning to use the kick to his advantage. He has mastered it only recently, coaches say, putting him in an elite group along with Americans Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol.

A year before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, U.S. swimming coaches got together and agreed they needed to better understand this dolphin kick. Clearly it was important. But there was virtually no body of research on the topic. How much of a difference did it make? How should they teach it? Which was the best approach?

They got in touch with group of scientists at George Washington University who had been studying how fish swim in an effort to aid in the design of small submarines for the Navy. USA Swimming's biomechanics coordinator, Russell Mark, immediately set the GW team -- which included professors Rajat Mittal and James Hahn and student Alfred von Loebbecke -- to the task of studying the underwater dolphin kick. The USA Swimming-sponsored research, which began in 2003, continues to this day.

"The advantages of doing it," Mittal said, "are very apparent to everybody."

The race has since been on to implement the kick.

"I've talked to people about the fly kick being a weapon for your swimming that you must have," said Eddie Reese, a two-time Olympic team coach at the University of Texas. But in years past, "I was always disappointed I wouldn't see [school-age swimmers] doing the fly kick underwater. . . . In the last five years, I've been seeing it more and more.

"Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol -- you can't compete with them unless you can fly kick."

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