SWIMMING SCIENCE BULLETIN

Number 15 - Section V

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University

A HISTORY OF CRAWL STROKE TECHNIQUES TO THE 1960s: AN AUSTRALIAN PERSPECTIVE:SECTION V

by

Forbes Carlile

[Adapted from Carlile, F. (1963). Forbes Carlile on swimming (pp. 126-188). London, England: Pelham.

Editors' Note: I asked Forbes Carlile if this treatise could be produced in the Swimming Science Journal. I thank him for agreeing. The motivation behind its presentation is that errors in stroke advocacy are being promulgated in today's swimming circles. Some of those errors have been tried in the history of the stroke. Without knowledge of those historical attempts, which were improved upon by later stroke modifications, some swimmers will not be benefited even though they "believe in" those making the recommendations. There is a history of swimming. Knowing what has been emphasized and subsequently improved upon should lead to better coaching and swimming performances. Unfortunately, at the Atlanta Olympic Games all crawl-stroke events except the women's 100 m were slower than at Barcelona. This is the first time that the sport has regressed so dramatically. Such a deviation cannot be explained by the quality of the athlete. As attempts are made to reverse this trend, the lessons that history can teach us are worth considering.]
Table of Contents

  1. First Experiments in Style
  2. The Early Crawl-stroke
  3. Experiments with the Crawl-stroke
  4. The Japanese Era
  5. More Experiments in Style
  6. The Australian Revival
  7. Australian Crawl-stroke To the Start of the 1960s


Section V
More Experiments in Style

The Japanese men were nearly as successful at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as they had been four years earlier. This time they took 10 places, to five by the USA.

The American Jack Medica won the 400 m from the Japanese Uto and Makino, whilst the two Japanese sprinters, Yusa and Arai, were touched off by the Hungarian Ferenc Csik in the 100 m. In women's events the American freestylers were toppled by Dutch girls, led by Rie Mastenbroek who won the 100 m and 400 m in Olympic record times of 1 minute 5.9 seconds and 5 minutes 26.4 seconds.

In Europe, during the 1930s, swimmers with a low flat position in the water who stretched the arms well forward in the recovery were meeting with success, and in America the tall, heavily-built Jack Medica also swam in a very horizontal position. As a schoolboy, I remember overhearing Medica saying in 1937, when he visited Australia, that it was best to "swim down-hill." James Christy (USA) and Noel Ryan (Australia), third and fourth in the 1,500 m at Los Angeles, were other successful swimmers who swam low in the water with flat body positions. Both stretched the arms well out for their initial push down on the water.

On the other hand the slender, tapering Ferenc Csik of Hungary was a sprinter with a combination of pronounced back hollowing and very high alternate lifting of the shoulders. In the recovery, rather than swinging his arms around in the Weissmuller fashion, the Hungarian used more of a throw forward with moderately bent elbows. His hands entered the water in front of his head, to make a fairly straight-armed pull under the body on the center-line.

Csik's breathing was irregular, but it was not of the alternate side, bilateral type introduced by Jean Taris and also used by Barany, the earlier Hungarian sprinter.

Holland's Willy den Ouden, who reached her best in 1932 when she swam second in the 100 m at Los Angeles, also adopted the Weissmuller technique of hollow-back and high upper-body position, but her very successful teammate, Rie Mastenbroek, used a different method.

Rie Mastenbroek used a flat-body position with her face well down in the water. Having good flexibility she was able to lift each shoulder remarkably high during the arm recovery. Her recovery action of the arm was something new. It was made with high elbows and with the forearm kept in front of the elbows as the hand was, as it were, pushed forward. The arms were stretched well out, freely and quickly, before beginning the press down on the center line. The other arm pushed well back. The legs with a powerful drive seemed, like Jean Taris', to have a considerable up-thrust component. For many years the Dutch coaches have taught the need of the up-thrust in the leg action.

The Danish girl Ranghild Hveger, second to Mastenbroek in the 400 m at Berlin, took practically all the women's world records at freestyle during the next three years. She reduced the 400 m mark to 5 minutes 0.1 second (made in a 25 m course) and the 800 m to 10 minutes 52.5 seconds. With a slight hollowing of the back, Hveger used the high lift of the shoulder girdle with each arm recovery, but unlike Mastenbroek there was little "peaking" of the elbows instead the recovery was low, and close to the water. The recovery arm was bent and the hand kept in front of the elbow throughout the recovery, which was made with a quick motion. The hand entered the water just in front of the shoulder, stretching forwards and downwards like the Japanese. The leg action of both Hveger and Mastenbroek could best be described as independent up-thrust "flutters," made with straight legs and toes turned in.

Ranghild Hveger concluded a remarkable career in 1952, when she swam fifth in the final of the 400 m at the Helsinki Olympics in 5 minutes 16.9 seconds.

After the Berlin Games came the second world war, and it was 12 years before the Olympic Games were revived in London in 1948. In the meantime, by 1942 practically all the freestyle world records from 200 m to 880 yards were held by the thickly-set 224 lb. Hawaiian, Bill Smith.

The Modern American Crawl

Smith swam with a flat body position and a regular six-beat stroke which the famous Yale coach Bob Kiphuth described in 1942 in his widely read book Swimming. The stroking technique that Kiphuth recommended at this time was used by most American champions in the period 1940 to 1956.

Kiphuth felt that the arm action for the ideal stroke lay between what he termed the "short" Japanese and the 'stretched out" American style. It was a six-beat kick for all distances. This is how Kiphuth described the style he felt subjectively represented the most efficient freestyle:

"The body should be in a perfectly flat position with head and chest fairly high, the water level above the eyes; shoulders level with the surface of the water and the horizontal axis through the shoulders should be at right angles to the long axis of the body. This means, ideally, that there should be no dipping of the shoulders or rolling of the body; neither should there be lunging nor hunching of one shoulder ahead of the other. The arms should move in the shoulder joint, but the shoulder itself should be in a fixed position, the body moving over the arms, literally "crawling." Care must be taken not to allow the catch and pull to be too wide because such a position cannot take advantage of the strong muscle pull that is possible with the arms near the middle line of the body. On the other hand a pull across the middle line of the body under the body is incorrect because in this position a great deal of water must be slipped in recovery since the arm has to be moved outwards and in such an action the backward push of the water at the end of the stroke is lost."

Kiphuth described the arm recovery of this stroke as being made with a bent elbow, the hand covering a semi-circular path. The arms extended forward beginning the press down with a raised wrist.

The leg action was a regular and relatively deep six-beat.

For the sake of classification we may call this stroke described by Kiphuth the Modern American Crawl.

I must say here and now that in my opinion the 1942 version of the American crawl, with its deep six-beat kick and flat body position, which was used widely up to 1956 is now obsolete, nearly as passť as the side-stroke.

London 1948

Most nations, particularly European countries, found themselves unprepared for the London Olympic Games and with the recent memories of war, Japan was not permitted to compete.

The USA took 11 of the 18 possible swimming places in men's events. Although a number of Olympic records were set, when we considered the times of all the finalists, the general standard had not risen since the Berlin Olympics. I remember making an analysis on the sea voyage back to Australia and nearly convincing myself that swimming records had just about reached a plateau and only slight improvements might be expected from here. How wrong this idea was to prove in the 10 years that followed!

In the 100 m sprint at Wembley Swimming Stadium, the tall Walter Ris defeated his fellow-American Alan Ford, who was then the 100-yards world record holder. Bill Smith completed a grand swimming career by an all the way win in the 400 m from Jim McLane.

The three Americans Ris, Ford, and Smith, used the modern American crawl described by Kiphuth, and Jim McLane, who won the 1,500 m for America, differed only in that he lifted his elbows slightly more in the recovery and had a somewhat shorter entry gliding longer before the arm drive. When I pulled out some dusty movie films I made of McLane in London and compared them with my films of today's champions, I was amazed at the extent of the glide and the regularity and depth of McLane's kicking.

John Marshall (Australia) and Gyorgy Mitro (Hungary) were placed behind McLane in the 1,500 m. They used individual and rather different techniques. John Marshall went on to greater things and his stroking technique was most interesting.

John Marshall swam with a well-arched back and a very effective, shallow flutter kick. He used a remarkably high lift of his flexible shoulders on each arm recovery, which was made with high elbows and an outwards flick of the forearm. This took the arm to an almost completely extended position in front of the shoulders. His whole stroke was characterized by his extreme flexibility.

In 1951 Marshall swam the 400 m in 4 minutes 26.9 seconds, and eventually claimed almost every world record from 200 m to the mile. Besides his extreme flexibility, Marshall had another important physical characteristic - a very high tolerance for blood acidity. Professor T. K. Cureton reports in his book The Physical Fitness of Champion Athletes (University of Illinois Press, 1949) that when Marshall was tested in the laboratory at Illinois, he was found to rank higher than any sportsman previously measured in this capacity to tolerate the build-up in the blood of lactic acid, the fatigue product of exercise.

Within six months of joining Kiphuth at Yale, the 19-year-old Marshall, following three months of conditioning exercises and pulley-weight work, had built up from 152 lb. to 172 lb. I still have a letter Marshall sent me at that time. He said that instead of the one mile per day training he had averaged in Australia, he was swimming up to six miles on many days, and carrying out a great deal of this at close to full speed. He spoke of the personality and immense drive of Kiphuth.

Marshall was killed tragically in a motor car accident soon after the 1956 Olympic Games where he finished fifth in the 200 m butterfly-stroke final.

In 1949 and the early 1950s a 5 feet 9 inches Japanese student of the Nihon University turned the spotlight on his country when he vied with John Marshall for being the world's fastest distance swimmer. Hironoshin Furuhashi reduced the 1,500 m record to 18 minutes 19 seconds.

Furuhashi swam with a technique which created great interest at the time and has a number of lessons to teach us today. His style was quite unlike the conquering Japanese freestylers of the 1930s, in fact it was unlike anything the world had seen before in championship swimming.

Furuhashi had a stroke of his own. He made very good use of the extremely powerful muscles of his upper body in a continually moving arm action. His shoulders and body rolled considerably as he drove the shoulder into each arm stroke. The arms speared into the water close to his head and pulled under the body without any apparent glide.

His feet barely broke the surface, and close examination showed an unusual underwater action. When I saw him in the North Sydney Olympic Pool his leg action could be classified as a four-beat with one particularly large downward flip of his right leg, made with a well-bent knee just as the left arm speared into the water.

There were two major beats, one with each leg, just before each arm started on the major part of its drive and two small flutters. When he saw Furuhashi in an exhibition with John Marshall at Yale in 1950 this is what Bob Kiphuth said:

"The secret of his (Furuhashi's) technique lies in the development of his arms. The Furuhashi style does not reflect any new or revolutionary trend in Japanese swimming as a whole. He is absolutely unique -- in a class by himself. He couldn't have copied the style from anyone else and no one else could copy it even if they wanted to."

However, I believe that Furuhashi's style was the straw in the wind. His was the forerunner of later successful techniques.

Handy's Underwater Pictures

The American engineer Jamison Handy saw something new and exciting in the Furuhashi style. Handy, a good swimmer himself, played an important part in the evolution of swimming, experimenting successfully with the "legless" crawl during the early l900s. He never ceased to be a student of the sport. Handy made a very significant contribution to swimming when in 1950 he maintained that the Furuhashi stroke was far from being a crude and "freak" mode of progression, and did in fact represent an important new advance pointing the way to improving the crawl as a speed stroke.

Handy had taken underwater stroboscopic pictures at .004 of a second of outstanding American swimmers of the period, all regular six-beat Modern-American-Crawl swimmers. A careful study of these pictures established that such was the depth of the kick and nature of the six-beat timing that for every cycle of the arms there were two periods of foot drag. This occurred at the time of maximum acceleration of the stroke, when the arms were just beyond half way in the pull. There were thus two moments when the legs "put on the brakes" in each complete revolution of the arms. This braking effect is increased when the speed from the arms is added to the speed obtainable on the kicking board alone and may explain why the speed of the whole stroke is no simple relation between speed obtained from arms and legs separately.

Another important consideration is that a regular deep six-beat kick did not allow for any resting phase in the leg action which employs the large muscle groups of the thighs and legs. A leg action involving less than the six-beat thrash would theoretically give a greater period of rest for the legs, allowing blood to flow more freely through the working muscles in their relaxation phase.

Yet another result of the leg action being less than a regular six-beat, and I believe this is very important, is that the arms can go straight into their drive with less of a glide, less waiting in front for the legs to fit in the three beats with each single arm cycle. Although at first sight his very individual stroke appeared ugly and unusual, Furuhashi was experimenting in a practical way with something radically new in swimming technique -- and it worked well enough to give him all world records from 400 m to 1,500 m. Being wise after the event, we can now see the reason. Furuhashi employed the important principle of "four-cycle propulsion," evening out acceleration within each arm cycle. Each major leg kick was made at a time early in the catch before maximum propulsion came from the driving arm. This meant the propulsive movement came in an alternate manner from each arm and leg, and that during the most propulsive part of the arm drive the feet and legs were well within the streamline of the body.

There was something else very interesting about Furuhashi. He was born near Lake Hamana, an area that for years has supplied most of Japan's swimming champions, where children learned to swim almost as soon as they could walk. It is there that youngsters often swim five or six miles out to one of the islands to picnic, with their lunches tied on their heads.

This rather confirms a theory of mine that the key to the problem of producing super-swimmers of tomorrow may be in taking very young children and scientifically "dosing" them with the exercise of swimming as they grow. Starting even at 9 or 10 years of age may in future prove to be far too late for the best possible performances. It is a case of, "as a twig is bent so will it grow," and the earlier the organism is trained to swim the better may be the final result in terms of swimming speed.

Helsinki 1952

The Helsinki Games in 1952 saw all Olympic records broken and a far higher general standard than in London. Furuhashi, who "had to work and could not train as hard as before," and John Marshall, who I believe trained too hard at the wrong time, were both failures at Helsinki, barely qualifying for finals. The American men and the Hungarian girls were the most successful. The slim 19-year-old, 6 feet 2 inches French youth, Jean Boiteux, won the 400 m, using his large and flexible feet to make a shallow continuous flutter kick. He swam with high elbows and a fairly short arm entry.

The Americans, Clarke Scholes and Ford Konno, who won the 100 m and the 1,500 m respectively, were typical modern American six-beat swimmers. Scholes had been photographed underwater by Jamison Handy and was shown to have the deep, "dragging" six-beat action.

I have examined underwater movies of Ford Konno, the 5 feet 6 inches Hawaiian who, by the Helsinki Games, had broken most of Furuhashi's and Marshall's world records. The flat shoulders and recovery, with stretched-out arms and raised wrists, the glide before the arm pull, and the deep six-beat kick of the American crawl were all obvious. Konno set a new Olympic record of 18 minutes 30.3 seconds for the 1,500 m.

However, as far as America and Europe were concerned the failure of Furuhashi and the success of the Americans served to confirm in many people's minds the fact that the orthodox Modern American Crawl with the six-beat kick was still the "ideal" stroke. Kiphuth wrote after the Games:

"It is impressive to see most of the Helsinki competitors using accepted styles of swimming. There was very little wind mill action in freestyle recovery with the majority using a bent arm and riding with an even, flat body position."

We saw nothing new in the freestyle techniques of the winners at the Olympics in 1952. Swimmers and coaches went home to prepare for 1956, when the Olympic Games were to go to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in history. It was in Melbourne that Australian freestylers scooped the pool and swimming standards made the greatest-ever leap forward in the space of one Olympiad.

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