Although not widely used in previous years, the recent wave of sprinters using straight-arm freestyle has triggered a philosophical rethinking of the technique.
In the early 19th century, the British swam in a very polite and peaceful manner. Civilized swimmers entered the pool carefully, without getting their heads wet, and glided gracefully along with their heads above the water. This style of swimming was also preferred in the British competitive swimming leagues, although the early competitors swam with a slightly greater sense of urgency.
In 1844, Native Americans, Flying Gull, and Tobacco, rocked the British swimming empire during a demonstration in London. According to legend, Flying Gull swam 130 feet in 30 seconds to defeat Tobacco and win a medal. Their stroke was described as a “thrashing” style in which the arms moved “like a windmill” and the legs moved in an “up-and-down” motion.
Almost a century-and-a-half later, a spry youngster named Janet Evans rocked the swimming world and obliterated world records in the distance freestyle events using a windmill, straight-arm freestyle recovery. It seemed all at once impossible, yet strangely familiar.
Straight-arm freestyle recovery has been seen at different points throughout the history of swimming, but it hasn’t been widely used. Even though it was highly successful for some, straight-arm freestyle was generally considered to be unorthodox, purely individual and even accidental. However, the recent wave of sprinters using straight-arm freestyle has triggered a philosophical rethinking of the technique.
When Janet Evans broke her first world records in 1987, people were shocked and surprised by her technique. Although she was very petite, her swimming was a huge spectacle. Evans swam like a water bug, scuttling quickly and weightlessly across the surface of the water. Her rapid freestyle arm turnover was just as alarming as was her straight-arm, windmill recovery.
“My straight-arm recovery was natural,” said Evans. “I really couldn’t swim it any other way. I think I developed it when I was a kid, and I wanted to get down the pool the fastest. I figured the fastest way to get to the other end was to turn my arms over as fast as I could.”
“If It Ain’t Broke”
As Evans developed into a world-class athlete, coaches soon realized that any attempt to change her stroke would be counterproductive.
“When I started coaching Janet in 1985, she was 14 and already was becoming a top national-level distance swimmer,” said Coach Bud McAllister, who currently coaches with the Kitchener-Waterloo Training Center in Ontario, Canada.
“I first noticed her swim when she was 10, and she had the same style of stroke, straight-arm recovery and very high stroke count.” A firm believer in the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” theory, it was obvious to McAllister from Day 1 that it was working very well without any interference.
“I didn’t try to change Janet’s freestyle stroke for some time, but one day I did have her try to swim with the classic high-elbow recovery to see what it looked like. I don’t think that experiment lasted more than five minutes! It didn’t look natural at all, and it was slower than her normal stroke. I accepted it as what worked best for her, and began to watch it closely to see what made it work for her.”
“Coaches would try to change my stroke,” Evans recalled, “but I would go back to the straight-arm recovery. I think that bending my arms really slowed my tempo down, and my stroke was definitely driven by tempo.”
As her swimming evolved, her stroke stayed very much the same.
“I always thought that I had such a great amount of force in the push from my hips to the end of my underwater stroke,” said Evans. “It naturally made my arms fly, windmill-style, out of the water. That’s what it felt like to me.”
Picking It Apart
Upon closer analysis, there are several other noteworthy elements in Janet Evans’ freestyle. Aside from the incredibly high stroke rate and straight-arm recovery, Evans displayed an excellent hip and shoulder rotation, an effective catch, super propulsive underwater pull, an undulating body movement and forward head lift on the breathing strokes, which appeared to be tied to the undulation.
“I did have a lot of undulation in my stroke,” said Evans, “and I definitely brought my head up just a little. I think that ties into the undulation. I worked a lot with a stroke coach named Nancy Schlueter. She and her late husband, Walt, did a lot of work with Mark Schubert. They were fantastic stroke coaches! Nancy always said that my freestyle was almost a modified butterfly.”
Evans was a great puller in workout. Interestingly, her kick may have been as weak as her pull was strong.
“I was always in the back of the lane in kick sets,” Evans chuckled. “Have you ever seen my feet? They’re a size 6, tiny! I think I used my kick simply to keep the tempo of my stroke going.” With this highly unusual combination of elements, it’s easy to see why very few swimmers imitated her.
Although McAllister wouldn’t have classified himself as a straight-arm freestyle coach, he did coach Japan’s Suzu Chiba, one of the few others known to swim successfully with a straight-arm recovery. McAllister offered some enlightening comparisons between Evans and Chiba:
“Both swimmers had very relaxed recovery motions,” said McAllister. “Just as a swimmer with a high elbow is usually very relaxed during the recovery, they both had this quality, and they had it despite having stroke rates above 50!
“Both swimmers had great hand speed/acceleration at the finish of their underwater stroke (similar to that of a butterfly swimmer), with the “snap” at the finish of the stroke. Both had excellent hip rotation, particularly as their hand exited the water. This quality gave them more force/power at the finish of their stroke.”
However, since Evans was a distance swimmer and Chiba was more of a sprinter/middle-distance swimmer, the straight-arm recovery worked differently with each swimmer’s strengths and weaknesses, particularly the kick. Evans had an unbelievable pull but “a relatively weak kick,” according to McAllister. “Suzu had a tremendous, six-beat kick.”
Next Generation Sprinters
In 1992, Chinese sprinters Wang Yenyi and Zhuang Yong rose to the top of the international rankings and won Olympic gold by swimming straight-arm freestyle. Unfortunately, allegations of illegal performance-enhancing substances being used in China caused their technique to be largely unnoticed.
In fact, few people really took notice of the use of straight-arm recovery by sprinters until six years later when Australian Michael Klim took the swimming world by storm at the 1998 World Championships in Perth. According to Hall of Fame coach Paul Bergen, Klim’s technique was definitely worthy of attention.
“I noticed something unusual about his stroke,” said Bergen, who currently coaches Olympic gold medalist Inge “Inky” De Bruijn of the Netherlands at the Tualatin Hills Swim Club in Oregon. “I talked a little with Klim’s coach, Gennadi Touretski, about what he was doing with Klim. Coach Touretski was getting a lot of his ideas about training tempo from rowers, which was quite a different approach compared to what he had done with Popov.”
At the time, Bergen was looking for new ways to combine increased kick (in the last half of the 100) without sacrificing arm tempo. “In the classic bent-arm freestyle,” said Bergen, “when kids would pick up their kick tempo, their arm tempo would slow down. It’s like their stroke would get longer. What I noticed with Klim was that when he picked up his kick, his arm tempo appeared to increase. So I thought, maybe this approach is something we should look into.”
Tinkering With Success
Coach Bergen admits he was “taken aback” when he first saw Evans doing windmill freestyle back in the 80’s.
“She had incredible speed, tremendous turnover and very even tempo.” As impressed as he was, Bergen saw her stroke as “something that fit her specifically.” In trying to contextualize Evans’ stroke, Bergen recalled another great distance swimmer from the late 70’s, Australian Tracey Wickham.
“Wickham’s stroke looked a little bit like Janet’s, but since Tracey was a little bigger, it wasn’t quite as noticeable,” said Bergen.
When asked about the Chinese sprinters’ use of straight-arm freestyle, Bergen commented, “I don’t think their technique was by design. I have spoken with one of the Chinese coaches, and they were doing so much mileage, it seemed as though using straight-arm freestyle was the only way they could actually succeed.”
Although these technical footnotes were probably always in the back of his mind, it was truly Klim and Touretski who influenced Coach Bergen to try something totally different with his swimmers.
“After seeing Klim at the World Championships, I told Inky that she was going to change her stroke. It was definitely a big deal. I mean, here’s a world champion and her coach two years before the Olympic Games, but we just made up our minds that it was the right thing to do. In January 1999, we told our swimmers that everyone was going to swim this way.”
At the time, Bergen’s decision seemed drastic, but there was sound reasoning behind it.
“We were watching underwater films of world-class swimmers and our own kids,” said Bergen, “and we saw that very few of the kids rotated their hips to finish the stroke. With the classic bent-arm free, they would rotate their hips too late in the stroke. So, we took our 6-and-unders, taught them straight-arm freestyle and discovered that they rotated their hips just like a world-class swimmer.
“The straight-arm recovery forces the hip rotation at the exact correct time. At that point, we decided the whole team was going to do it, and we were going to live with it for five months to see what happened.”
What happened was truly extraordinary. The following year, Inky would begin an unforgettable record-breaking rampage that culminated at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where she was the most dominant swimmer with three individual gold medals and three world records.
Inky De Bruijn’s stunning success was no accident. It was the result of several essential elements, such as talent, hard work and technique. Leading up to the 2000 Olympics, De Bruijn achieved a monumental level of fitness and took her talent to a whole new level. However, it was the technical evolution, supervised by one of the world’s most brilliant and creative coaches, that ultimately elevated her to the top of the medal platform.
“It was very difficult to learn the new technique,” said De Bruijn. “When I first tried the stroke, my whole upper body was very tense. I felt like there was no place to relax in the stroke. It didn’t feel comfortable for a while, and it was often confusing to keep the arms straight over the water and then bend them underwater.”
Along the way, Bergen developed innovative methods for teaching and mastering the stroke. He soon realized teaching swimmers how to catch properly was significantly more difficult than teaching the actual recovery. Very few swimmers do the proper catch naturally.
“Far too many swimmers just bang through the catch of their strokes,” said Bergen. “When the arms are spinning around in a windmill-style recovery, developing a soft catch is the real trick.”
To remedy this situation, Bergen prescribed resistance training with the power rack and stretch cord surgical tubing in the pool. This approach forced swimmers to learn to catch efficiently because, otherwise, they would slip backward.
“Anything that causes more-than-normal resistance forces the swimmer to catch properly,” said Bergen. “So, if you use resistance training in combination with straight-arm recovery technique, you have a better chance at getting swimmers to do it properly. Two percent of the swimming population does it naturally. The rest can be taught, but they have to be taught on some sort of resistance swimming. Inky does it naturally, one of the two percent.”
“I take fewer strokes now,” added De Bruijn, “and it really helped my butterfly, but I’m not sure why.”
The Long and the Short
For Bergen and De Bruijn, straight-arm freestyle was initially a solution to the problem of decreased tempo at the end of a sprint freestyle race. During the journey, the technique produced one very surprising byproduct: a viable connection between the short-axis butterfly and the long-axis freestyle.
“I saw a lot of parallels in conditioning the shoulders for a butterflyer/freestyler using straight-arm freestyle versus the classic bent-arm style,” said Bergen. “It’s really good for senior swimmers who are combination fly and freestylers.” Bergen was not convinced swimmers could get much endurance out of butterfly sets.
“I think the stroke breaks down pretty fast,” said Bergen. “For 30 years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to condition butterflyers with freestyle, without much success. It seems like while they can get into kicking shape and pulling shape, their shoulders never came around. If you took a good flyer/freestyler and swam alternate sets such as ten 400s, 50 free/50fly, they end up saving themselves on the free so they can swim the fly. At the end of the year, you end up with pretty mediocre freestyle and good butterfly. You’ve almost ruined their free at the expense of their fly.”
Now, Bergen feels the straight-arm freestyle works in a beneficial way. Swimmers get the shoulder conditioning before bringing butterfly into the picture.
“It’s like doing butterfly recovery vertically rather than horizontally,” said Bergen, “but it would be the same angle if you were to turn them back to their stomach, the angle of recovery would be the same as the butterfly stroke.”
The 21st-century windmill freestyle revolution has been closely accompanied by new ideas about teaching young swimmers. Although Coach McAllister only coached a few swimmers with this stroke, his openness to the idea allowed Janet Evans to thrive.
“I think coaches and swimmers should not be afraid to experiment with this stroke,” said McAllister, “especially if they are having problems with their stroke. Is it comfortable? Is it fast? Does it change their stroke count at all? I think it has to be natural for the swimmer to be able to swim with that stroke.”
Coach Bergen is on the cutting edge of the straight-arm freestyle movement and was one of the first coaches in the United States to teach the stroke starting with the youngest swimmers at the beginner’s level.
“It’s excellent for teaching young age-groupers,” said Bergen, “so ours all start with straight-arm free. After the age of 12, we sometimes allow them to go back to a bent-arm free. However, if it is a butterflyer, we’re still pretty much sticking with the straight-arm freestyle.”
Looking back to the days of Flying Gull and Tobacco, the level of detailed technical analysis about swimming technique was certainly not what it is today.
When Janet Evans emerged, there was a lot of discussion, but most people generally thought of the stroke as an individual anomaly. All of these swimmers shared something in common, which is something they share with today’s swimmers. Even though it appeared to be unrefined, they were all just trying to get across the pool as fast as they could.