It’s Never Too Late To Be Great!

Reflections on how a beginner learned to be a competitive breaststroker and more

By Coach Don Easterling and Suzi Burns

 At the 2016  U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship in Greensboro, one of Coach Don Easterling’s masters swimmers, 69 year old Suzi Burns, scored two fourth place finishes and one sixth place finish in three breaststroke events. It was her first national competition and she had only been swimming for 3 ½ years. In this article Coach “E” and Suzi, talk about becoming a masters competitor and how you too can do so despite obstacles and lack of swimming experience. Finally, Coach E shares breaststroke technique tips and ways he helped Suzi get it right.

Suzi: The decision to become a masters swimmer is intimidating for many. And for those that have never competed in any swimming event at any age, doing so may be an absolutely overwhelming thought.  I was no different and when Coach Don Easterling (Coach E) asked if I wanted to start taking masters classes, I was excited but doubted I was ready. Like others who are intimidated by the word “masters,” I told Coach E, “I can’t swim to the end of the pool without being short of breath!” Sound familiar?

Coach E is a seasoned and talented swimming icon. Known for his attention to technique and ability to get the best from every swimmer, he has done that with me and every stroke has improved. That is not to say we didn’t encounter a few obstacles along the way. I am sighted in only one eye and initially this made it hard to gauge distance and was a bit of a problem for nailing flip turns. I often missed the wall entirely or ended up in the wrong lane! I also have a condition that makes me very prone to pneumonia – talk about short of breath! And last, I share the shoulder and back issues that are common in many athletes but especially older athletes like me. This means we have had to adapt my workouts to prevent further injury or pain without losing ground. While coach won’t tolerate the word “can’t”, his ingenious and creative ability to craft just the right workouts for me has meant I have rarely had to stop swimming and have continued to improve.

Initially our goals focused on increasing my endurance, technique, and fitness level. I gradually increased my time in the pool and subsequently my total yardage (i.e., from 2500 to 4000 yds) three times per week. I did not increase my swimming days as I found doing so was often counterproductive; I needed recovery time! After 1½ years of swimming with Coach I entered my first competition.  My times were slow and I DQ’d in my very first event because I stopped in the middle of the pool when I heard someone shouting (I thought at me). I quickly learned to ignore shouting and just keep swimming!

Soon time trials became more regular in our workouts. Being an inexperienced swimming competitor, terms like “descending times” were a mystery. Initially I thought it meant going slower with each length.  But I soon “got it,” and learned more with each competition. After competing in 7 regional meets and almost every stroke, even if they weren’t my favorites or my best, Coach suggested we aim for nationals. While I didn’t meet any qualifying times, but was close in the breaststroke, with his encouragement I signed up on the very last day possible, and for the next three weeks Coach got to work on my breaststroke.

Then, off to nationals and more to learn! I followed Coach’s guidance and strategies for each of the races. Despite nerves, little sleep, being a bit sick on my first race day, and trying to feel comfortable in my “tech-suit,” which is like a sausage casing, I beat my own personal records plus attained a top ten ranking in each of my three breaststroke events! There is no doubt in my mind that Coach’s focus on technique was what made me competitive. While I plan to do more competitions, I also know that they may be fraught with obstacles to overcome.  But I say, bring ‘em on! I’ve got Coach E in my corner!

Coach E: After coaching competitive swimming for over 60 years, 34 of those years at a university division 1 level, I decided to retire. But I flunked retirement at least 26 times! I was offered a chance to coach masters and I had no idea I would enjoy it as much as I have. A good coach is first a good teacher. One cannot be in this honored profession without a philosophy. Mine focuses on technique, which is where the teaching element takes place. It never stops, there are always small and large adjustments to the stroke and each of the four strokes has its own peculiarities. But, it all comes down to distance per stroke. Liken this to miles per gallon in your automobile. A poorly tuned car will always get inferior results.

Suzi began swimming with me about 3 years ago and works out several hours each week with me except for the summer months. It was obvious to me early on that Suzi could be an elite breaststroker. But because Suzi was new to competition, it was essential that we focused on a strategy to get her ready to compete at a national level. In the rest of this article, I share tips on the breaststroke techniques that got her ready.

The Breaststroke:

Breaststroke is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, strokes. Tarzan used it in the movies while looking for Jane! Actually he had pretty poor form, he swam with his head up, and he was probably more worried about the crocodiles than Jane!

I get tired of hearing people say they “hope they get it right.” Hope is never a good strategy. You get faster by working to make your weakness become your strength. In breaststroke you must have a strong kick. It is the most leg driven of the 4 strokes, that is you can kick breaststroke faster than you can pull it. This entire stroke is under water, meaning your arms recover underwater, so technique and timing are essential.

The biggest problem with most swimmers, especially masters swimmers, is a lack of flexibility. In breaststroke it is mostly lacking in the ankles, so stretching is important. While not the purpose of this article, suffice it to say you just can’t do too much stretching!

The Breaststroke Kick:

The proper kick begins with lifting the feet over the hips with feet and knees together. As the feet lift, the toes turn out and up toward the knees, and the legs gradually open. The knees must always stay inside the feet. Water wants to push the knees apart, and water does not get tired. At the apex of the foot lift, the knees are 8-15 inches apart and the feet and ankles are turned out. The toes then are pointed towards the knees. The legs are now in the “set” position as you have finished the recovery stage. This is the only stage that has zero propulsion, as it does not move the body forward. All other leg recovery stroke stages move the body forward.

In breaststroke you kick to pull, you do not pull to kick. Suzi has small feet with very little bottom foot surface area to propel with. The use of breaststroke fins helped her find the “sweet spot” in the kick. These are one of the greatest training inventions in that the fins guide the path for the foot. Both breast and IM may especially benefit from using these fins.

As you kick you must squeeze the knees and thighs together to generate more foot speed at the end of the kick. Squeeze hard from the butt muscles to the ankles. Toes should be pointed, tight, and feet touching. When the foot speed is there, the feet will rise at the end of the kick and make a small circle of water on the surface.

Learn to kick with and without a board both above and under water, plus do some vertical kicking. These should be done with breaststroke fins during regular and hypoxic breathing drills.

The Arms:

From the stretched position press the hands down, out past the shoulders and increase the hand speed by snapping the elbows toward each other as they come under the rib cage. There is no pause here, and the hands shoot forward no more than 2 inches below the surface. Do not dive the hands and head down in front of the stroke. Keep thumb next to thumb, always reach, stretch, and lock your elbows. Never turn the palms up. This arm cycle takes place as the kick is pushing back. When the kick is finished, as described above, the body is completely streamlined. Stay paused just for a moment at the end of the cycle. Do not rush the next cycle!

Breaststroke Breathing:

This part of the stroke is likely different than what you’ve been doing or have been taught. Keep the head neutral; do not lift the head to breathe. Pretend a broomstick runs through your head straight down your back. As you squeeze your elbows under your ribs, your body will rise and you breathe with your face pointing straight down towards the bottom of the pool. Breathe with your mouth just above the surface. If you lift your head to breathe, you drop your hips and reduce the force of the next kick. Timing is everything, but if you do not have a powerful kick, do not write home for brownies! When Suzi’s stroke is timed right, it is so smooth you don’t hear it. And, to get it right she works a lot on each phase separately.

The Breaststroke Stretch:

Start and end each cycle in a totally stretched body position; arms, legs, feet, toes, fingers. Have thumb next to thumb, not hand on hand as in a streamlined position. Done correctly, this creates a “ski” like surface to receive the kick force. As noted earlier, remember that as you kick you must squeeze the knees and thighs together to generate more foot speed.

Of all the strokes, breaststroke has changed the most over time. The strokes of elite swimmers often vary to fit the athlete and may be quite different between swimmers. We adjusted Suzi’s stroke to fit her unique talents and her feel for the water. Videotaping Suzi’s stroke regularly with critique from me helped her better understand how to improve. Also, perfecting drills helped create muscle memory for all parts of her stroke.

We hope this article helps masters swimmers to believe that lack of experience, and even obstacles, need not keep you from competing and doing well! And last, technique is essential as are stroke techniques that highlight the athlete’s unique abilities. As stated in the title, it’s never too late to be great!

[Webmaster’s note: this article was originally published in the August, 2016, edition of the LMSC newsletter, but I wanted to post it onto the website so that it can reach as wide an audience as possible.]


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