Swimming Esthetics

"Feel" for Water - Shaving Down, by Charles Sprawson

The principal quality, he (Murray Rose) continued, demanded of a swimmer is a 'feel for water'. He should use his arms and legs as a fish its fins, and be able to feel the pressure of the water on his hands, to hold it in his palm as he pulls the stroke through without allowing it to slip through his fingers. Rose believed that like water-diviners, only those succeed who have a natural affinity for it. Sometimes water can become an obsession, as in the case of Rick de Mont, a beautiful stylist who won a gold medal in 1972, only for it to be taken away when traces of a drug were found in his system that had been prescribed by the team doctor for asthma. Now he lives in Tucson, on the edge of the Arizona desert, and devotes himself to a 'spiritual quest for water'. He can sense like a diviner where desert streams are likely to appear suddenly after rain, and records their momentary presence in watercolour. Large oil paintings, inspired by dreams, reveal dim shapes of prehistoric fish swimming through jungle rivers. He loves the sound of water, the feel of it on his hands and legs. For de Mont, the streams and dreams 'force' interpretation.

In order to intensify this feel for water, Australian swimmers of the Fifties started shaving down their legs before important races. The idea spread to America in 1960 when Rose moved to Los Angeles. American swimmers began to shave, as well as their legs, their arms, chests and heads. Minutes were knocked off times over the longer distances. It was not so much the elimination of the hundreds of minute air-bubbles which cling to hair and slow down movement that counted, as its psychological effect. Rose described the immediate sensual awareness of water as he dived in, the feeling that he was suspended, united with the element, the sudden surge of power like that experienced by ballet dancers who remove their hair to activate their nerve-endings. When a swimmer achieves a good time, the first question invariably asked is 'shaved or unshaved?' The problem then arises of how often shaving is possible. If one can delay it till after trials or preliminary heats, it then becomes a psychological advantage over one's rival. Shaving has become a complex science. The secret is not to overdo the shaving or the thrill is lost, to restrain the shaves so more hair comes off when required. Before a race some swimmers are observed rubbing their hands on the rough matting of diving-boards, in the way that a safe-cracker sands the tips of his fingers to increase their sensitivity. The Fast German women took shaving a stage further when they adopted the 'skin suit', made from a single layer of stretch nylon that appeared to be glued to the body. At first embarrassed television cameramen would only film them from the neck up, but now they are universally accepted. The Australian Dawn Fraser claimed she could have broken every record in the book if allowed to swim naked. Nudity originated in the Greek Olympics when Orsippus dropped his loin-cloth and was seen to gain a distinct advantage thereby.

Olympic swimmers are subject to conditions unique to them. They remain isolated in their lanes. There is no convergence or contact as with runners. Chance plays a considerable part even at the highest level. A swimmer can be far ahead at the finish, yet mistime his final stroke, or be drawn in a lane where he is forced to breathe on his 'wrong' side up the final length. A photograph from 1936 shows the Japanese Uto well ahead towards the finish, yet losing to the lunging American outside him. If a swimmer can remain on his rival's hip, he can be carried along in his surge, inherit the other's momentum, and also act as an anchor on the man in front. 'I just surfed in on his wake,' was Armstrong's answer to reporters who wondered how he had ever beaten Biondi.

Nor are the physiques of swimmers like those of other athletes. The best swimmers rarely excel at other sports, as their bodies are too finely tuned to adapt. A swimmer's muscles are long and pliable. 'You can't do anything violently or suddenly in water,' observed Bachrach, the great Chicago coach of the Twenties, 'it even takes time for a stone to sink. Things must be done with relaxation and undulation like that of a snake.' From observing the superior speed of long slim fish like the sandpike and pickerel, he looked for 'snaky' swimmers and felt he had found the perfect streamlined form in the elastic Weissmuller.

Bachrach insisted that in swimming one must ignore rivals: 'In most sports they have a physical effect on your performance, in swimming only psychological. If you worry about what your rival is doing, you take your mind off what you are doing and so fail to concentrate on your performance.' Once the swimmer hits the water he is his own man and immune from outside influence, but before the race begins much can be done to disturb his state of mind. Even the way a swimmer acknowledges the crowd and removes his track suit by the starting blocks can be significant. 'I was scared,' remarked a fellow-finalist when confronted by Gross, 'this monster of a guy swings his arms in your face. I tried not to look at him before the race, he's such a dominating figure.' The changing room is a particularly emotional area. One Australian used to sit in front of her principal rival and just stare into her eyes. Schollander describes how before one Olympic semi-final he broke the nerve of the Frenchman Gottvalles, the world record-holder, by moving gradually closer to him on the bench as they changed, then when in desperation Gottvalles dashed to the urinal, Schollander followed and stood behind him waiting although there were others free.

Bachrach was aware of various 'mental hazards, psychology kinks' among his leading swimmers in Chicago, who held almost all the world records in the Twenties. There were many, he felt, who might be real champions, 'if only they could straighten out those kinks' The swimmer's solitary training, the long hours spent semisubmerged, induce a lonely, meditative state of mind. Much of a swimmer's training takes place inside his head, immersed as he is in a continuous dream of a world under water. So intense and concentrated are his conditions that he becomes prey to delusions and neuroses beyond the experience of other athletes. The peculiar psychology of the swimmer, and his 'feel for water', form the basic themes of this book.

(from "Haunts of the Black Masseur", subtitled "The Swimmer as Hero", by Charles Sprawson, published in 1992 by Penguin Books)

©Copyright 1997-2002 USMS.
All Rights Reserved
horizontal line
to home page Top Ten Home Page Remembering Page to home page Frequently asked questions USMS Home Page e-mail Page Top