Breaststroke is the racewalking of competitive swimming—the slowest way to go fast in the pool.
The chest-forward, bobbing, frog-kicking stroke historically has been a shaky spot for the otherwise dominant U.S. Olympic swim team. But a recent focus on technique has revolutionized the oddball stroke. A young crew of Olympians has the U.S. contending for its best medal haul ever in the breaststroke.
“We’re the weirdos,” said Team USA’s Cody Miller, who won a bronze medal in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke Sunday.
On Monday, Lilly King and Katie Meili became the first U.S. women to win medals in the 100-meter breaststroke in the same Olympics. King won gold in Olympic-record time and Meili won bronze.
On Wednesday in the men’s 200-meter breaststroke, Americans Josh Prenot and Kevin Cordes both are medal favorites. If they succeed, the U.S. would have five breaststroke medals. That would be its best showing ever, accounting for changes in events and entry limits over time, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. And that’s before the women’s 200 preliminaries begin Wednesday.
“The breaststroke is coming along as coaches have seen, ‘Hey, there’s an opening here,’” said Mike Bottom, an assistant coach of the U.S. men’s swim team. “We have in the last few years really developed technique.”
The breaststroke—or something resembling it—comes naturally to most people because it can keep their face out of the water while providing a view of what lies ahead. But doing it fast is an altogether tougher challenge.
For years American swimmers focused primarily on physical conditioning, Bottom said. That was a great approach for freestyle events but not so great for the breaststroke, in which Japanese men, and women from around the world, have excelled.
But coaches in the U.S. have put on their lab coats. Nort Thornton, the former longtime swim coach at the University of California-Berkeley, spent several years after his 2007 retirement studying the breaststroke.
“If you think about track and field, you’ve got shot put, high jump and hurdles,” and athletes train in specialized facilities, Thornton said. “In swimming, everything’s kind of lumped together so the breaststroke gets shorted.”
He used to encourage breaststrokers to get bigger and stronger to muscle themselves through the water. But Thornton has done a flip-turn on the subject. He now believes that perfecting technique is far more important than spending extra hours in the weight room.
“I figured out that the main thing is not power, the main thing is aquatic body lines,” Thornton said. “It’s like designing a car for better gas mileage.”
A swimmer’s arms shouldn’t swing wider than the shoulders, he said.
“It’s like standing on a stage with a spotlight over you,” he said. “You create a shadow. Anything beyond shoulder width, you’re going to expand that shadow.”
Thornton has worked with Prenot, a senior majoring in physics who swims for Cal, to alter his breaststroke’s traditional frog kick. Prenot now starts with a dolphin kick, where he keeps his legs together and whips them like a dolphin’s tail, Thornton said.
“And at the very end of the dolphin, we just circle the ankles out a little bit to satisfy the rules,” he said.
Prenot won the 200-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Olympic trials in an American-record time, then quipped about the U.S.’s improvement in the event.
“I guess we’re becoming more like England, where we’re really good at breaststroke and pretty bad at soccer,” Prenot said.
Indeed, Great Britain’s Adam Peaty won the 100-meter breaststroke in world-record time Sunday. The U.S. men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the Games, though the women’s team is a gold-medal favorite.
Joel Stager, director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University, points out that widely varying body types can excel in breaststroke.
Cordes is built like a freestyler at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds. At 5-foot-11, Miller “doesn’t look like a swimmer,” Stager said. “He’s Mr. Average. But he’s virtually technically perfect in terms of resistance and power. He’s minimizing his resistance and is very effective in applying the power he does have.”
Even world-class breaststrokers slow down traffic in crowded training pools. At the elite level, for instance, freestylers can swim 200 meters 25-30 seconds faster than breaststrokers.
“You hate them in practice because they need more than half of the lane,” said Felix Auboeck, an Olympic freestyle swimmer from Austria. “Breaststrokers are definitely odder than any other swimmer. They are special. It’s like the goalkeeper in football.”
Rebecca Soni, the retired six-time Olympic medalist and standout of the 2012 and 2008 Games, said specializing in breaststroke actually was an advantage.
“A lot of times later in my career I could do the same workouts that the freestylers and butterflyers were doing but with breaststroke,” Soni said. “It forced me to catch up.”