The Buzz: Starts and Turns
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
With every flip and turn in the short course pool at the 2012 Short Course World Championships, Ryan Lochte solidified himself as one of the greatest butterfly kickers of all-time. Off each wall that Lochte surged ahead of the field in the 200m freestyle, the commentators discussed how the American’s turns were the difference. It was hard to argue. Lochte dominated those turns. They were epic. He won by a few tenths of a second over Paul Biedermann, world record-holder in the event.
The win did a few things: 1.) It solidified Lochte’s standing as the greatest all-around swimmer in the world right now. 2.) It proved that Lochte’s time-out after the Olympics wasn’t enough to take him out of “racing shape.” 3.) It displayed how much of an impact that U.S. short course training – and age group and NCAA experience -- has when competing against the rest of the world.
Ryan Lochte’s turns won him the race. No question. He beat Biedermann because he had better turns. “Starts and turns” quickly became the theme of the Short Course World Championships. Again and again, Americans with better turns than the rest of the world surged ahead, taking leads, heading for home. Swimmers not only like Ryan Lochte. Matt Grevers utilized epic backstroke turns to get ahead of the field in both the 100 back and the 400 freestyle relay. He’d flip, stretch into that long, lean 6’8’’ streamline, and kick past the other splashing, flailing swimmers.
Turns weren’t only on display in these short course World Championships. Relay exchanges were, too. When the United States men took control of the 400 freestyle relay, they did so through precise, pristine relay exchanges. The exchanges were well-executed and practiced. They’d hit the wall a half-body length behind, but by the time the next swimmer came up after the relay exchange, they were nearly equal with the field. You could tell the swimmers on the relay were “exchange pros,” having each practiced relay exchanges hundreds – or thousands – of times on NCAA and age group swim teams. Ryan Lochte swam for Florida. Anthony Ervin swam for Cal. Matt Grevers swam for Northwestern. Jimmy Feigen swam for Texas. All swam for incredible NCAA relay squads. Watching their lightning-quick relay exchanges on Day One at Worlds, you could tell.
How many times do coaches say, “Starts and turns are the difference in this race”? Starts and turns are on full display, more than ever, in this short course format. Anyone who wanted a visual tutorial on how to have close-to-perfect turns just needed to watch the highlights of the men’s 200m freestyle. Ryan Lochte put on a show. He needed to. Without those turns, he would have lost.
Near the end of the race, Paul Biedermann was gaining. He out-split Lochte the final 50. He was closing in. The world-record holder was clawing, scratching at the water, trying to get past Lochte. Another five or ten meters, and the race was Biedermann’s.
But Lochte had that final turn heading into the last length. He stayed underwater longer. He kicked harder and deeper. He swam under the waves and beyond, popping out of the water a half-body length ahead of Biedermann. When you figure Lochte stays underwater and kicks longer than most swimmers, almost 25% of his 200m freestyle is turns and butterfly kicking. If you’re a short course swimmer and you want to win a world championship, the moral is: Every turn is an opportunity to not only become better, but to one day, perhaps, win a world championship.
Of course, there is no short course Olympics. Turns become less significant in swimming’s biggest meet. However, part of the fun watching a short course format meet is you get to see those true, pure wall gurus -- the swimmers in practice who perfect their turns every day, who perfect the pull-outs, precise streamlines, and lung-busting underwater butterfly kicks. With long course, there is room to make up for a bad turn or slipped start. In short course, these details are the difference between gold and nothing.
It’s impossible to win a short course world championship without incredible starts and turns. Just like it’s impossible to win an NCAA title without them. Or a high school state championship. Or really anything, for that matter.
These swimmers winning short course championships aren’t just the best in the water. They’re the best on and off the walls, too.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and “Splash Magazine.” Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.