A HISTORY OF CRAWL STROKE TECHNIQUES TO THE 1960s: AN AUSTRALIAN PERSPECTIVE: SECTION VII
The two most important factors which influenced "Australian Crawl" in the 1960s were swimmers made their arms dominate the stroke minimizing the part played by the legs, and exercises and weight training were carried out during the six months "off-season" to increase flexibility and develop and strengthen the muscles of the arms and upper body.
If there was any one model for the Australians (particularly in the arm recovery), it was probably the great American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, but there was one big difference in the Australians' approach -- they trained very much harder than Weissmuller or his coach ever thought possible.
Characteristically, the legs of the Australians made a fairly narrow fluttering action, very much shallower than the deep thrashing kicks used by the Americans in 1952 at the Helsinki Games. Australians, like Dawn Fraser, Jon Henricks, and Lorraine Crappe, all kept their leg actions narrower and much more within the streamline of the body. Their feet were kept well "pointed," helping to cut down resistance.
The leg kicks of the Australians were not regular six-beats. Nearly all Australians, even Crappe, Fraser, and Henricks, who at first sight appeared fairly orthodox, could be seen to have a type of "irregularly continuous" leg action on closer analysis. Each swimmer had his/her own particular irregularity in the leg kick, for example, a diagonal movement of one foot while the opposite arm recovered. Murray Rose, for instance, used a definite trailing action with his legs in races of more than 100 m. During distance swims underwater movies I have taken show that Rose at times has used a two-beat action, but generally he has a distinct four-beats in 400 m events and an "irregular" five-beat action for 100 m and 200 m sprints. John Devitt (second in the 100 m at the Melbourne Olympics and winner of the gold medal at Rome) had a very inefficient and relatively inactive leg kick, because his ankle joints were not at all supple. Devitt would take a long time, about 70 seconds, to kick a board 55 yards, whereas Lorraine Crappe, who had the strongest leg action of any Australian of this period, could beat all the men at kicking. I once timed her at 37 seconds for 55 yards.
The "secret" of the successful Australian crawl-stroke in those years lay in the fact that whether or not the individual's leg kick was a strong one, the arm action was always considered by far the most important factor in the stroke. Usually more arms only (pulling) practice with a band around the ankles was carried out than kicking-board practice. Coaches believed that the legs must "dance" attendant on the arms not vice-versa. This is why arms-only work was given an important place in our training. When we went to Holland to coach in 1962 we had the greatest difficulty in persuading coaches and swimmers that, compared to the arms, the leg kick was relatively unimportant, and that a swimmer who over-kicked was spoiling him/herself in this way.
If you looked carefully at many of the world's fastest crawl swimmers then, particularly in distances over 100 m, you would distinguish what I call a "broken-tempo" in the leg action.
With all my pupils (both sprinters and distance swimmers) I went so far as to insist on some trailing action of the legs, a momentary one or two pauses with the legs during each cycle of the arms. Few, if any of my pupils, kicked with what would be described as a regular six-beat, and no two of them kicked in quite the same way.
To the best of my knowledge it was Dr. Jim Counsilman, coach at Indiana University, who first made a scientific analysis of the cross-over kick in the same way as Professor Cureton had made a masterly analysis of the six-beat flutter kick in 1930. Counsilman's paper followed observation and experiments with George Breen, the World 1,500 m record-holder until 1960.
In discussing the so-called ugly legs-crossing style of his pupil Breen, Jim Counsilman once told me how, in green's early days, he used to over-hear swimming "authorities" at swim meets saying that "the boy might make a good swimmer if he got a good coach and learned better style" (meaning that he should kick a six-beat).
However, Counsilman showed, not only with Breen but also with other top crawl swimmers, such as Alan Sommers, that those with low flexibility of the shoulder joint causing a wide arm recovery will tend to swing their buttocks from side to side and that to prevent this resistance it is very much better for these inflexible swimmers to allow the legs to make a compensatory cross-over action which counteracts the swing of the hips.
In the early 1950s American coaches in general seemed to agree with Bob Kiphuth's opinion expressed in his book Swimming -- that in the crawl-stroke the "body should lie perfectly flat . . . and there should be no dipping of the shoulders or rolling of the body." Yet most top Australian swimmers were permitted to dip their shoulders and roll their bodies. In fact the bodies of most of the Australian swimmers in those years rolled considerably around the longitudinal axis. This rolling movement included shoulders, hips, and legs, in contrast to the Japanese of the 1930s who did not roll the hips. The fact that the shoulder dug down into the water generally meant that the muscles of the trunk (as well as the arm muscles) could be brought into action in the pull through. That shoulder movement was where the Australians differed from Weissmuller, who swam in a flatter position and was somewhat higher in the water.
Many top Australians swam with a fairly horizontal position and did not make a conscious effort to get the head and chest up high. Murray Rose always swam well down in the water. I believe that the key to maintaining the horizontal position lay in turning rather than lifting the head for a breath, and keeping the waterline across the top of the head not "just above the eyes," as many coaches and swimming books still teach today. The breathing technique used by Rose, Crappe, Fraser, and other great Australians was uncomplicated. The head was kept down, turning to breathe and coming back to the front again in time with the roll of the shoulders. Inhalation was made through the mouth and exhalation through the mouth and nose.
At Rome in 1960 I saw two very fine American sprint swimmers whose heads were even lower in the water and bodies more horizontal than the Australians. They were Lance Larson, who was awarded second place to John Devitt in the 100 m, and Jeff Farrell, who made athletic history by competing three weeks after an appendix operation.
I believe that one of the great fallacies in teaching crawl-stroke was the story that, by getting up on top of the water "like a speed boat" the swimmer will cut down resistance and be faster. No swimmer will ever be able to exert the power necessary to plane over the water like a boat. All he/she will do by striving to "get up high" in the water is to incline the body at an angle and increase resistance, thus wasting energy. For all styles of swimming this same principle holds. With my pupils, I often gave the example of the submarine which, using the same power, is faster when completely under the water than when it is half submerged. When the waterline runs across the shoulders resistance and wave-making will be greatest, just like the submarine half submerged.
My advice to swimmers, for all styles of swimming, was to lie down in the water and stay as horizontal as possible in order to cut down resistance. We had good examples of this in such great swimmers as Murray Rose at crawl-stroke, Chet Jastremski at breast-stroke, and Tom Stock at back-stroke. All of these champions used the greater part of the power they generated to propel them forward and along, not to get up on top of the water.
Now let's look at the arm action for crawl swimming.
The Australians during their "revival" in the 1950s almost all used the bent arm, boomerang-like swing for the recovery similar to the unique American, John Weissmuller. The straight arms of the Hungarians and the typical American stretch-out recovery with cupped hands and high wrists were both rejected. Instead, the Australians kept the hand distinctly lower than the elbow on entry and from then on there was very little glide as the hand took a hold on the water and pressed down and then back. An exception was Lorraine Crappe, the girl with the particularly powerful and flexible leg action, which drove her forward over a distinct glide in the arm action before she began to pull.
In general, the Australian underwater action was for the arm to take a slight weaving path about the center line. We had long interpreted the pull to be straight through the water without any deviation which resulted in the inefficient technique of "cutting holes in the water." Dawn Fraser and a number of other top swimmers allowed the hands to wander well across the center line during the pull. Most Australians bent their elbows considerably during the arm-pull, taking pains to make a distinct push back at the end, not just to the hips but to the thighs.
Whereas the Americans of the early 1950s generally used a stroke where the arms glided in front for an appreciable period, most Australians drove their arms quickly down and pulled with very little waiting in front. As Counsilman said: "While you are gliding you are resting and your rival may be pulling." The Australians did not do too much resting with their arms, they pulled.
Now we come to a most important point in the crawl-stroke -- the action of the legs. In the orthodox crawl, with a regular six-beat kick to each complete arm cycle, it was necessary to wait momentarily with each arm extended in front in order to fit in the leg beats before the arms could push firmly down and back. With an irregular broken-tempo and a pause in the leg action, each arm can start pressing down firmly immediately it enters the water. This, to my mind, was the most important reason why this type of irregular leg-action was effective.
We told our pupils to push down from the surface, keeping the elbow a little higher than the hand. I think it was the American coach, Matt Mann who said, "Push down, don't pull back." This, I believe, is excellent advice. After the initial push down with a relatively straight arm, the pulling arm will quite naturally begin to bend at the elbow, enabling more muscles to be brought into action. Counsilman called this the rotating action of the forearm.
The principle of a high elbow throughout the arm drive was important because it allowed more resolved force to be used for forward propulsion and was much more efficient than a weak "dropped-elbow" movement made with an extended arm.
It might be said that none of these points of style favored by the top Australians in those years was new or original, and after reading the foregoing sections you will agree that most things had been tried before. However, I believe the particular combination of these points was something new. Many points of technique were not first worked out carefully on paper by coaches and then applied: in Australia they gradually evolved while the emphasis was placed on swimmers carrying out very strenuous interval training.
My wife Ursula and I made a commercial 16 mm instructional film on the swimming techniques of champions, including Australians, and we were able to compare the slow-motion shots of Murray Rose taken in 1957 with the Murray Rose technique of 1962 (soon after he had returned from America where he had just set his new 400 m world record of 4 minutes 13.4 seconds). It was clear that in 1962 Murray was stretching his arms out much further than he had before, thus he was able to make a longer pull. In addition, he began his elbow-bend earlier. I believe that these two changes were improvements in Rose's technique. Australian swimmers in those years, like Rose in 1957, tended to dive their arms steeply into the pulling position. They certainly eliminated glide but often shortened their strokes unnecessarily by trying too hard to make a quick pull.
Perhaps the most efficient action lay somewhere between the complete stretch-out and the steep dive-down arm action that was seen in a number of Australian swimmers.
John Devitt, with a best time of 54.6 seconds, used an amazingly high stroking rate for his 100 m sprints. In order to get this high tempo he carried his arms over the water lower and straighter than most Australians, and he held his shoulders much flatter in the water. I believed that for top sprinting both these things were necessary to some degree. There would be less roll by the sprint swimmer, not because of lower resistance (which is doubtful anyway) but because a higher stroking tempo with a more stable body was possible.
Sometimes you will hear it said that the way the arms recover over the water does not matter because "it is what you do under the water which is important." I believed that the form of the arm recovery was important, because it effected the whole pattern of the stroke, as well as the balance of the body.
In nearly all top sprinters then, the arms were almost flung over in what was called a free ballistic movement. However, in middle-distance swimming, where the tempo was slower and the recovery a little more controlled, I believed the arms should come over with the elbows high enough to enable the weight of the arms to be transmitted as it were straight down through the upper arm to the shoulder. Most of the best middle distance swimmers (and Rose was an outstanding example), showed this type of arm recovery. This action was not possible unless the body was rolled to some extent around the longitudinal axis.
Returning to the legs, it was wrongly said that "Carlile does not believe in kicking the legs." Actually I am certain that an efficient leg action can help a swimmer greatly. The important thing was how the legs were used. Even when Murray Rose was making only two-beats to an arm cycle, he still generated a great deal of propulsion from those two whip-like kicks. His feet moved vigorously, diagonally and downward. One or two shallow, powerful kicks made with flexible ankles, followed by a trailing action, were very much more help in propulsion than the regular heavy beats of the old six-beat crawl-stroke.
We made a great deal of progress in technique by studying carefully just what champion swimmers used successfully. When we looked back we found that many great swimmers of the past swam with techniques not unlike the champions of those days. As I said in the opening paragraph of this section, the big difference between the performance of many old-time champions and those of the early 1960s was due to harder training and to the tremendous amount of out-of-the-water strengthening work carried out during the off-season.
It need hardly be said that there was no one "correct" crawl-stroke technique. Even while attempting to follow the same principles, each individual had his/her own "style" of swimming. Body build, and the normal posture of the individual, also influence technique greatly.
To my mind the most important principle in swimming the crawl-stroke then was that the legs should play a secondary part in the stroke and should be used with some variety of "broken-tempo." The legs must not be permitted, by kicking a regular six- or eight-beat, to impose a gliding action on the arms.
Coaches asked: "What about youngsters just out of the beginner stage? What shall we teach them to do with their legs?"
This problem concerned the teachers in our Swimming School at Ryde, and this was my advice. In the early stages, a great deal of training should be done on a kick-board, emphasizing looseness of joints, a shallow kick, and pointed toes. Sometimes, to give some "form" to the kick, it was necessary to teach beginners to count 1 2 3 -- 4 5 6, but I preferred them to be taught a continuous fluttering action with no special accent. Then, as soon as the leg action became reasonably strong, we started with arms-only pulling. For weaker swimmers, the legs were held up with a cork or float tied to the ankles.
It was my experience that when pulling work was done, the arms were forced to take an early hold on the water to prevent the swimmer from sinking, and then the broken-tempo leg action and a more or less glideless arm action was quickly learned. The swimmer who over-kicked and glided too much can often be reeducated into a broken-tempo by plenty of arms-only work.
Coaching for style is an art as much as a science. By this I mean that we did not have hard and fast scientific principles to guide us all along the line. For instance, we had a great deal to discover on the hydrodynamics of swimming and the muscular actions involved. I have pointed out here, by describing the 1960s "Australian style" and the reasons for it, the general nature of a technique which proved successful. Of course, I had no doubt that we would have to change some of our ideas in the future because swimming is a dynamic activity and must keep on progressing.
Ryde, New South Wales, Australia
28 February, 1997
I am honored to have this history included in the Swimming Science Journal.
I started to read it, and I must say that I learned something from the story. Remember it is more than 40 years since I first put this together in the early 1950s. I then revised it for the book [Forbes Carlile on Swimming -- 1963]. I wish I still had some of the original letters but I don't think I do, although they could be in a box somewhere in this cluttered study. I used the Mitchell Library [in Sydney] to read the Referee and Arrow newspapers of the day. Now apparently these papers have crumbled away but I have heard that fortunately they have been saved on microfilm. At the time I was looking for the first mention of the "crawl" stroke as I was fascinated by the gestation of the stroke which swept the world in the early 1900's. The history sort of traces the development of my understanding of the crawl stroke and "obsession" with the two-beat kick which I had three world record holders use, Karen Moras, Shane Gould, and Jenny Turrell, in the 1970s.
I now refer to Harry Gordon's monumental work Australia at the Olympics (1996). In it are some interesting swimming stories I knew little or nothing about, for example, how in 1924 Boy Charlton's coach Tommy Adrian, a schizophrenic, jumped off the ship in the Red Sea on the way to the Paris Olympic Games. They circled to pick him up and the ship shattered one of its two propeller shafts. The team nearly missed the Games but made it by catching a train to Paris from Italy rather than wait to sail on to England. Then "Boy" Charlton at 16 won the gold for the 1500 m lopping a minute off the old world record.
Australia certainly was in the forefront of swimming in those days, at the turn of the century, and for the next 20 or so years. We had great swimming thinkers in Cecil Healy and Frank Beaurepaire. And there were others.
I don't think too much new in technique has evolved in the crawl over the past 30 years or so. But that is not quite right. "Doc" Counsilman provided some wonderful insights, albeit that some of his "principles" may need modifying today.
Did I write "rotate around the central axis" then? I am sure I did in the l956-1960 technical films Ursula and I made. Yes of course we said "head down" just as I am sure we used to say "turn the head with the roll of the shoulders" which certainly implied head well down.
Come to think of it Brent weren't we talking about the longitudinal axis when you were coaching with us back in the early 1960s at Ryde. Always nice to say "we told you so" isn't it?
Perhaps you could write the sequence to all this? Put it all together, on from the two-beaters of the 1970s, and telling what has been learned from biomechanical analyses of modern day champions.
The grain needs to be shaken from the chaff with some reliable scientifically-oriented analysis.
Return to Table of Contents for Swimming Science Bulletin.