Swimming More Like Fish
At the Moscow Olympics in 1980 Duncan Goodhew won the 100 metres breast stroke in a time of 1 minute 3.44 seconds. Twenty-two years later his feat was included in Channel Four’s 100 Greatest Sporting Moments of all time.
Duncan’s sporting immortality is assured (if enhanced, admittedly, by his trademark bald dome). But the winning time? Local swimmer Jean-Jacques Choron swam a Hastings Seagull club record time for the event of 1:03:09 at the Summerfields pool last month.
It illustrates the continuous advances in swimming training, technology and performance over the past 40 years (and more). On the same day his brother Henri Choron, aged 18, won the club’s 200 metres butterfly in 2 minutes 6.65 seconds, a time that would have made him world record holder at the event up to 1964. Hannah Keen’s club record of 56.62 seconds for the women’s 100 metres freestyle set in 2012 would have secured gold medals for her at all Olympic meets before Montreal in 1976.
On the other hand the world and Olympic records for these events still keep tumbling. At the London games of 2012 South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh lowered the 100 metres breast stroke world record to 58.46 seconds. Four years later at Rio Britain’s Adam Peaty reduced it again to 57.13. How is it that human beings (well, certain exceptional human beings) can be programmed to swim more and more like fish?
Optimisation of technique is one key element. For maximum propulsion through the water you need to engage core muscles, those in your back, torso and hips, rather than just arms, shoulders and legs. To reduce drag (the weight of water holding your body back) you need to keep your body as far as possible horizontal, the taller the better. Your kick should be compact for the same reason, neither breaking the surface nor operating too low below the body line. None of these things are particularly natural, they have to be learnt and practised. And practised some more.
Another element which previous generations were either unaware of or took for granted is the dynamics of the pool. Any turbulence in the water is going to provide an obstacle. Modern Olympic pools have a uniform three metre depth which keeps this to a minimum as do lane dividers with shock absorbents. Water temperature is kept between 25 and 28 degrees for optimum muscle relaxation.
Interestingly, though, the most influential innovation in the sport within the last 40 years was probably neither in the techniques of swimmers nor in the features of the water they move through but in something altogether simpler: the advent of goggles. Up to the mid-1970s training for more than a certain number of hours per day or per week was a red-eye activity. With eye protection training schedules could be doubled or trebled in quantity. Hence the schedules of Hastings Seagulls and of competitive swimmers everywhere.