A HISTORY OF CRAWL STROKE TECHNIQUES TO THE 1960s: AN AUSTRALIAN PERSPECTIVE: SECTION IV
At the Olympic Games in 1932, Japanese men dominated the swimming events, winning five out of a possible six gold medals and gaining 11 out of a possible 18 places. The USA took four places.
Japan first entered swimmers at the Olympics in 1920, but none advanced beyond the semi-finals. At Paris in 1924 several Japanese qualified for finals, including Takaishi (fifth in 100 m and 1,500 m) and Saiti (sixth in back-stroke). In Amsterdam four years later Takaishi moved up to third place in the 100 m, Tsuruta won the gold medal for the 200 m breast-stroke, and the Japanese 4 x 200 m team finished second. Following this, a surge of confidence and optimism swept through Japanese swimming circles. The world's best swimmers, including Weissmuller and Borg, accepted invitations to compete in Japan practically every year in the 1920s and 1930s, and Japanese swimmers competed in international meets all over the world, just as once again they have since 1960. They were making every effort to learn.
Their training was well organized and for those days severe. During a period of three months of hard training a total of four or five miles was covered each day. This was done in two training sessions. Stretching and flexibility exercises were a feature of their preparation.
Progress was rapid under the centrally organized and enthusiastic Japanese National Swimming Association. By 1932, Japan's swimmers in all strokes were nearly unbeatable. Throughout the 1930s there was a great deal of discussion about the Japanese successes. The world wanted to know why. Naturally their techniques came under close observation. This is what Matsuzawa, the chief Japanese coach said after the Los Angeles Games:
"The 1932 victory of the Japanese was probably due to the better use of the American crawl and European racing strokes than the Americans or Europeans themselves. Added to this, the Japanese swimmers were imbued with the national spirit and if there be any one main difference it was this fact. But for the Japanese swimmers to adopt the foreign racing style in its entirety was disadvantageous. In the crawl and back-strokes Japanese swimmers endeavored to aid the pull of the arms by the very strong beating of the legs. They have flexible ankles which gives them a lot of propulsion from their kicks without much effort."
Although it was claimed by the Japanese coach that there was nothing new about the Japanese crawl technique, certainly by 1936 a distinct stroke had emerged. The famous Japanese swimmer Katsuo Takaishi, veteran of three Olympic Games and a great student of swimming, maintained that there was a gulf of difference between the Japanese style and either the American or the European styles when he wrote in 1936 for Ashi Sports Magazine.
The model the Japanese had studied most was John Weissmuller, and Miyazaki the sprint winner at Los Angeles, carried his arms around in the recovery with an arm sweep characteristic of the American. However, as we shall see, this feature soon disappeared from the Japanese crawl, then developing along its own lines.
The Japanese Crawl
The arm recovery became quickened and shortened, the hand entering only a short distance in front of the shoulder, followed by a long underwater glide forwards. The arm pull was made on a line under the shoulder parallel to the backbone with the elbow slightly bent. There was a 'snap" finish to the arm drive by most Japanese, although the hands came out relatively short at the line of the hips.
Some Japanese swimmers also developed a marked "over-lapping" action of the arms, due to the very quick recovery. Both arms were clearly in the water at the same time, one finishing its drive whilst the other was pushing forwards and downwards. During the arm recovery and early arm drive a continuous, powerful leg beat drove the body forward over the leading hand. In contrast to the Americans the Japanese did not carry their heads and shoulders high in the water, although the body position was sloping, the knees were the lowest part of the body. With this stroke considerable body roll was introduced for the first time amongst modern champions. As the arms drove downwards, the shoulders in turn were allowed to follow.
The leg action was based on the low hip position. The knees were moderately bent during the kick -- very distinctly a downward and backward thrust with the feet. The feet did not come below the level of the knees so that the kick was relatively shallow.
The Japanese leg action was generally a continuous, "independent" six-beat without accent, like Kitamura's, the 1,500 m winner at Los Angeles. Kitamura's kick can best be described as a continuous 123-123-123, but it is very interesting to find that the 1,500 m winner Terada in 1936 was using a leg action with a resting phase. We shall have more to say later about this "resting phase" in the leg action.
Because of the generally small stature of the Japanese, with rounded shoulders and short legs with well developed calves, the stroke they evolved was probably with good reason, called a "masterpiece of adaptation." It is a style well suited to the body build of most Japanese, who are not tall and broad-shouldered like Weissmuller and Devitt, with their tapered bodies.
Takaishi in the book Swimming in Japan, published in 1935, wrote an article on the crawl-stroke explaining the Japanese line of thought, and what he said then is still worthy of careful study today. I believe it is an excellent analysis:
"There are a few who have the opinion that the pressing movement of the arm at the beginning of the stroke is of no use or can even be detrimental for increasing speed, but the writer believes that this very movement decides whether one is a good swimmer or not. A good swimmer must learn to press the water skillfully. It is better to let the arm into the water before it is completely extended. If one extends the arm fully before letting it into the water, the time for pressing will be too long. Both shoulders draw ellipses while swimming. One of them should be lifted when the other is dropped. Accordingly, the upper part of the body should roll to both sides, but the position of the body line does not change. This movement is called rolling the body and it has a very close relation with the crawl stroke. If one swims without rolling the body on the longitudinal axis he must swim in a very unnatural position, such as pushing the head above the surface of the water or floating the upper part of the body by sinking the legs deeply in order to breathe easily. If one tries to stroke without rolling the body the power required is produced only by the muscles of the arms and shoulders, but when the power of the rolling of the body is added to that of the arms the force will be greatly increased. But one must understand that there is a limit even for rolling, as too much will destroy the form or will slow down the stroke. Rolling of the body is necessary and the power produced by it greatly strengthens the stroke when it is combined with the arm movements. This strength is increased according to the degree of rolling, consequently it is natural that the more one rolls the body, the larger the arm movement becomes. The larger the movement, the slower the tempo of the stroke. The best method of speed swimming for a fixed distance is to swim with the largest and strongest stroke and with as high a tempo as possible. However it is difficult for a swimmer of limited power and strength to enlarge his stroke without dropping his tempo. Thus, we must consider the limit of rolling. In considering this it is important to decide whether the rolling suits a swimmer or not for on this decision rests whether he will succeed. This limit cannot be decided uniformly for every person. It is very difficult to find the limit of rolling which is most suitable for each individual. If one rolls the body too much he is compelled to let the arm stop while pressing on the water before it commences the catching movement. In short, the maximum of rolling is when the power gained by that rolling is all applied to the arm movement and each arm carries on its stroke without wasting time and energy. If the secret of speed swimming is to swim with the largest and strongest strokes and at the highest tempo, then the ideal would be for one with great strength to swim a certain distance with very strong strokes of the arms without rolling of the body because rolling drops the tempo. It is more understandable to call the pressing movement the supporting movement. One may think that this movement is done only by hand and wrist but in the crawl-stroke every part of the arm must press the water and even the shoulder helps this movement. It is the power of the finishing movement of the arms which actually increases the speed. Consequently the finishing movement should be done very quickly and strongly. While an arm is above the surface of the water it is of no use for increasing the speed. At this time the arm should be relaxed, and the only effort should be raising the elbow by using the muscles of the shoulder. The form of the arm recovery varies in each individual, but in general the best form is this -- lift up the elbow after an arm finishes the stroke movement and take it out of the water as if pulling the hand with the elbow. Carry it forward drawing a circle with the shoulder as the center and extend the arm forward and straighten the elbow when it is parallel with the body line. If one takes this method, the hand from the point of catching traces a parallel line with the central line of the body. Even though the hand is let into the water before the elbow is straightened one can bring it to the proper position by straightening the elbow in the water. Even the highest tempo cannot affect the position. Inhaling is done at the moment the roll on the breathing side is at its height. When the arm of the breathing side is near the end of its pull, gradually begin to turn up the face sideways and finish breathing when the arm makes its last snap, because at this time the rolling of the body is at full swing. Then the face must be carried back to its former position as the arm is carried forward. The mouth must be above the surface of the water for as short a time as possible. Then one must inhale through the mouth as much as possible in that short time. Then hold the air and exhale little by little until the mouth appears again above the water."
Shozo Makino, only 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 119 lb., one of Japan's outstanding swimmers and holder of the world record for 800 m and runner-up to Kitamura in the 1,500 m at Los Angeles, made these interesting and provocative comments:
"I pull out my hand before it has completed the stroke and stretch out immediately, not stroking to my waist thoroughly. This form is the best to keep a fast pace without much weariness in a long distance race. However, the form of long distance swimmer Honda, who won the Japanese and world records for the 1,000 m in 1934 is not that of a high tempo but that of long large strokes. I do not know which form is best, but each swimmer should choose that which suits him. The most important and common point is that the swimmer has to push the water firmly away as soon as he puts his hands in, without resting."
It is interesting that although the predominant feature of their stroke of the 1930s was usually interpreted as a long glide combined with a strong, continuous leg action and this was the stroke "borrowed" by many unsuccessful Australian swimmers at this time, the top Japanese coaches and swimmers were stressing the need to drive the arms quickly and firmly through the water using very little glide. When I read what the Japanese coaches said about crawl technique in the 1930s I appreciate that today my understanding of what is good technique is very much along these lines.
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