Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bird-Watching, Trainspotting, And The Breast Stroke

Mrs. Werbenmanjensen has a work colleague, an Englishman, of whom she said the first time she described him to me: "He does all of those useless English hobbies: You know, bird-watching, trainspotting." I've recently come upon a third: the breast stroke.

For the uninitiated in swimming, the breast stroke is the least useful of the four main strokes. You can't go fast, and you can't go far. According to this database, for example, even somebody swimming backwards over 50 meters is faster than a breast stroker over the same distance. And it's not as if, by going slow, a breast stroker can go longer distances. In the Olympics, breast strokers only compete at a longest distance of 200 meters, while the freestyle swimmers go 1,500 meters in the pool--and new for the 2008 Olympiad, 10 kilometers in open water. The 200 meters swum by breast strokers equals the longest distance swum by the more demanding butterfly stroke (the world record for which is about 15 seconds faster, by the way).

I write this only because I've been swimming lately as I prepare for a couple of triathlons I've entered this summer, and I notice that swimmers who, like me, are doing the efficient front crawl are a small minority in the pools I've visited so far, while breast strokers dominate. Many do it poorly, with flailing arms and feet. This is in contrast to the American pools I've swum in, where most of the swimmers are using the front crawl and those who turn to the breast stroke are fairly accomplished at it. While I don't really care how one gets from one end of the pool to the other, I do care that the kick and the arm movement of the breast stroke often results in contact with my head and ribs when I attempt to pass them. Trying to pass a breast stroker when another breast stroker is approaching from the other direction threatens to end in a tangle of limbs and swear words. It's not a pool-friendly technique, in my opinion.

I mentioned this to my half-English, half-Swedish cycling buddy Simon, who laughed and more or less agreed with my assessment of the English breast-stroking tradition. "It's a stroke designed to keep your hair dry," he said. He went on to recall that while he lived in Australia, he swam with a club, and was usually one of the slower swimmers in the pool during workouts. But when asked to do a breast-stroke set, Simon said he could often beat the Aussies.

And it's true! The swimming records database tells us that the last four times a Brit owned a swimming world record, it was in the breast stroke (and Brits have never owned a world record in the freestyle). Meanwhile, the Aussies (whose list goes on and on) tend to get records in anything but the breast stroke.

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Blogger Middle Kid said...

The breast stroke has to be faster than the "hair saving" stroke my mother always favors -- the side stroke.

3:26 AM  
Blogger Smitty Werbenmanjensen said...

You see the side stroke, too. I think it's better because the side-strokers will only kick you, not punch you.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Schmutz said...

I was told by my swimming teacher that the side stroke is energy efficient. He said a person could swim the side stroke forever (well, maybe not FOREVER but a long time).

12:41 PM  
Blogger Smitty Werbenmanjensen said...

He said a person could swim the side stroke forever slowly

Fixed your typo.

2:08 PM  

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