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‘Mind blowing’ breakthrough erases ‘sad’ legacy

With the FINA World Short-Course Swimming Championships underway in Melbourne, spectators are bearing witness to an interesting trend in the sprint events that will rewrite the way our elite Australian swimmers prepare for next year’s world championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics.

For most of the past 15 years, races like the men’s 100m freestyle have been dominated by a certain type of athlete. Larger and more powerfully built than swimmers of previous eras, their mostly-successful approach has been based on sheer application of force.

That worked especially well during the short-lived supersuit era. The combination of raw power with the suit’s reduced drag, added buoyancy and ability to delay fatigue was simply unbeatable. An incredible 147 world records fell in 2009 before the suits were banned.

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Whilst seeing these world records fall was incredible, as a technique-based swimming coach, there was a tinge of sadness too, as the world records of some technically and tactically brilliant swimmers were blitzed. The inherent benefits of the supersuits enabled certain types of swimmers to dominate using race tactics favoring power and aggression early in the race over historically characterized tactical and technical skills.

Succeeding generations of swimmers have continued to chase the sprint world records smashed during that time. Many continued to treat the 100m freestyle as a sprint. Less focused on technique, they exploded off the blocks to get to the front at all costs, and then grind it out to the end. Without supersuit assistance, though, fatigue and mental deterioration set in sooner, performance dropped away, and world records remained out of reach.

The early-race control and patience of pre-supersuit kings like Popov and van den Hoogenband, who could finish over the top of the field, was in short supply. Those that did – the likes of Chalmers, Magnussen and McEvoy with a big back half focus – dominated the top 10 swims over the past decade.

The FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) will be broadcast exclusively live and free on Nine and 9Now from December 13-18.

Caleb Dressel was renowned for his sensational front end ability but changed the way he approached the event so rapidly that he took close to 15 per cent fewer strokes between 2016 to 2019, whilst still dropping over a second to beat the rest of the world in 2019 .

Spectators enjoy watching the physically dominant athletes, but do you know what else is exciting? World records. Until recently, we hadn’t seen one in the Men’s 100m Freestyle, one of our sport’s showcase events, since the supersuit era.

Critics called the suits “technological doping”, and the era is often derided as having damaged the sport. That may be true, but we also learned a lot that is beginning to pay dividends.

Thanks to analysis of how the supersuits worked, we now have a clearer understanding of speed and how to move through the water more efficiently. It has definitely raised the bar.

Did I love it at the time? No. Are there opportunities to come from it? Absolutely.

It’s my belief we may have seen a glimpse into the future for men’s 100m swimming. In August this year, 17-year-old David Popovici finally eclipsed the supersuit-assisted 100m freestyle world record set in 2009 by César Cielo. There’s a lot of excitement around the sport that this lightly built young Romanian with the superb technique is only just getting started.

It’s also exciting for those who swim, and coach, against him. We see with the advances we’re making in technology and sports physiology, superior technique can once again triumph over raw power. It sets an exciting new challenge for leading Aussies like Chalmers, Emma McKeon and Kaylee McKeown, with world records that were set with supersuit assistance most definitely now back up for grabs.

Setting aside Popovici for a moment, we saw more evidence from one of our own at the Tokyo Olympics. Go and look at the video of the men’s 200m breaststroke final to see Zac Stubblety-Cook hit the last turn in third, then lift his stroke rate to power to the wall for gold.

That’s a textbook example of the more controlled, patient style of racing, along with a technique-led low-drag approach, that I predict is going to be the decisive trend heading into next year’s World Champs and the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Part of this is down to our improving knowledge of how swimmers move through the water, and understanding how tiny alterations make significant improvements in drag and buoyancy. The upshot is swimmers can stave off the debilitating effects of fatigue for longer – giving them a supersuit-like advantage over the closing stages, minus the controversy.

As athletes like Popovici and Stubblety-Cook are demonstrating, there has also been a rethink on tactics. When you look at an event of comparable duration like the 400m on the athletics track, you see the best athletes appearing to cruise until the final bend, before holding their form all the way to the finish line. When we’ve seen powerful swimmers bolt into a commanding lead and then hit a wall on the way home, it shows aggression is no longer necessarily the right strategy.

With an increasing awareness of the technical contribution makes to speed – and the cost to overall time in neglecting it – we’re really going back to the basics. Technically adept swimmers can better conserve energy at speed and approach the race more tactically, with enough left in the tank to respond to challenges and hold velocity to the finish. This is exactly what Popovici did, and with the depth of talent and resources we have in Australia, it’s a mindset shift that many of our best coaches and athletes, men and women, are already embracing across the range of events.

It’s an exciting development, but also challenging to coach because swimming has traditionally been a low-tech sport. It has been difficult to hone a swimmer’s technique beyond what you see with your own eyes, on a stopwatch, or via video analysis.

For example, we can count strokes, but that’s a fairly blunt tool because it doesn’t actually measure the length of the stroke. What we want to measure is the amount of travel from the moment the athlete starts to apply pressure, to the moment the athlete releases. The aim is to improve travel, or at least maintain the amount of travel as fatigue increases.

Currently we measure swimming velocity in training with a system that basically attaches a fishing line to the athlete’s belt line, works out the changes in speed throughout the stroke, and aligns that data with video. This yields useful data but once again, it has limitations because you can only use it for one lap, and it measures output and velocity but can’t isolate application of force.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see more technology finally finding its way into the pool. I’m working with ohthe Australian sports technology lab that has developed a product that gives us access to all the data we’ve been unable to capture previously.

Using a pair of devices that fit into the palm of the swimmer’s hands, eo’s SwimBETTER system can track stroke rate, consistency, stroke path, hand velocity, and applied forces in up to six directions. It puts all the data we need into a quantifiable format so coaches can technical analysis on the pool deck and make changes in real time. We can track swimmers over multiple lapses, during racing and time trials, and it also allows us to measure the effects of fatigue for longer.

Access to data like this changes everything, because it takes out the guesswork. We now have access to force-per-millimetre with every stroke, for example, and the potential advances we can make in honing technique, fitness and physiology are mind-blowing.

Yet also, I’m keenly aware we don’t want to turn our swimmers into data-driven robots. The most important tech we have is still the coach’s eye, honed over years of accumulated experience, knowledge, successes and mistakes. Devices like eo SwimBETTER should enhance what we see and the way we interpret it, helping us as coaches to assist our athletes to still achieve that relaxed and sometimes elusive flow state at which athletes perform at their best.

The ongoing discussions between coaches, trainers and sports scientists won’t change, but they will be a little more informed – our coaching instincts can be more data-driven and we’re now better placed to help our athletes implement a positive stroke change and track the benefits. It’s a significant string to the bow of coaches and performance experts, helping us to make better decisions for the athletes and the sport.

Exciting, too, is the fact that Australian coaches and athletes are at the forefront of this shift to an exciting new era. The future of swimming looks great.

Brant Best has more than 33 years’ experience in coaching and mentorship. He is a recipient of the Australian Swimming Coach of the Year award, and coached Australian swimmer James Magnussen to an Olympic silver medal in 2012. Brant also coached the first Australian woman to break the Australian 800m freestyle record.

Previously, Brant was the Head Coach of the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) High Performance Center based at Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Center (SOPAC) from 2010 to 2016 after working for the Queensland Academy of Sport from 2007 to 2009.

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