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by Terry Heggy

August 30, 2016

Aquatic Evolution

From Spitz to Phelps and beyond!

When U.S. Masters Swimming began in 1970, Mark Spitz had only earned his first two Olympic gold medals, and Michael Phelps was 15 years away from even being born. Today, the Spitz poster I had in my college dorm room has long since vanished, and Phelps has competed on his fifth Olympic team. My goodness, how times have changed!

Younger swimmers don’t believe some of the “back in my day” stories they hear from USMS veterans at Masters practice. But some of those tales are actually true! Let’s examine some of the ways our sport has changed over the last 46 years.

Infrastructure

The facilities for swimming are dramatically better. In general, pools are cleaner, lanes are wider, and filtration systems are more efficient.

In the ’70s, it wasn’t unusual to see lane lines that were nothing more than cotton ropes supported by a few sausage-shaped flotation buoys that did nothing to mitigate turbulence. Today, scientifically-designed lane lines and gutter systems almost completely suppress waves.

Back then, some starting blocks were nothing more than flat wooden boxes with a towel on top, and the height of the blocks varied significantly from pool to pool. (Yes, some of us are old enough to have swum in meets where there were no starting blocks at all!) Today, we have sturdy angled blocks with track-start fins and backstroke ledges that make starting far more efficient.

Pace clocks were strictly analog, stopwatches were spring-wound, and starters used pistols that could damage the hearing of the swimmer in the closest lanes (and make babies cry in the bleachers). There were no jumbo scoreboards to display the times from each lane, and performances were only recorded if Uncle Harvey remembered to get film for his 8mm movie camera. Today, the big meets have robot cameras both above the pool and on the bottom, and TV technology shows us a superimposed moving stripe to indicate record-setting pace. Very cool.

Gear

Alas, it’s true: Mark Spitz and his rivals competed without goggles. I think everyone from that era would agree that goggles are the greatest technological innovation to ever happen to the sport of swimming. Anyone who has suffered an eyeball-searing “chlorine attack” after a long, bare-eyed pool swim would happily vote sainthood for the folks who invented these things.

Back then, the serious male competitors would shave their heads rather than wear a swim cap. Today’s caps reduce friction so much more than a stubbly head that it’s rare to see anyone swim with an uncovered cranium. And whether you consider it a tragedy or a sublime blessing, the fact is that very few competitors nowadays swim with a big bushy mustache. (Sorry, Mark!) Old baggy suits with team patches sewn in are no match for our modern technical racing suits that have repeatedly proven their value in eliminating drag.

If that weren’t enough, we now have an abundance of training aids that no one had dreamed of when Spitz took the blocks. USMS sponsors now provide such tools as GPS and stroke-counting watches, tempo trainers, snorkels designed to help posture, and ergonomic paddles that simply didn’t exist in the 1970s.

Technique

Although some of the rule changes (e.g., dolphin kick on breaststroke starts/turns, no-hand-touch backstroke flip turns) have lowered race times, the biggest advances in speed have come through improvements in stroke technique and training methods. Scientific research has shown us how to reduce drag through better alignment, more efficient kicking and pulling techniques, and better streamlining and underwater propulsion off the walls.

If you compare butterfly videos of Michael Phelps with those of Mark Spitz, you’ll see that Phelps has much better core alignment and posture. He stays lower in the water, breathes without lifting his head as much, and recovers with a much flatter and more efficient arm movement. In Spitz’s time, swimmers popped right to the surface after leaving the wall, whereas we know today that faster speed can be achieved by staying under water longer.

Masters Swimming

The technical advances in aquatics are indeed huge, but I would argue that the biggest impact on the sport of swimming has come from the maturation of USMS. When Spitz swam, the prevailing idea was that when you finished college, your athletic career was over. Today, Masters Swimming provides the opportunity to continue the world’s healthiest sport throughout your lifetime. It also provides camaraderie, community, and friendships that enrich life in so many other ways.

And because the technology of the sport is constantly evolving, it’s great that USMS provides resources to keep us all up to date. Here are just a few of the tools provided by this ever-improving organization.

  • Places to swim—Find a local team, or a program to visit when you travel.
  • Online rule book—Learn what the meet officials are watching for.
  • Coach certification—If your coaching staff hasn’t yet been trained in Masters coaching, it would be a worthwhile investment for your team to subsidize their certification.
  • Articles and videos—Take advantage of a massive archive of the latest training tips, technique advice, and workout suggestions from the experts. (I’m sure they’ll let us know when they discover a speed advantage from growing a mustache!)

It’s exciting to think about what our sport will experience in the future, and it’s great to know that as long as we participate in Masters Swimming, we’ll continue to evolve as well!