Human beings have been swimming (or at least, trying to swim) for thousands of years. You’d have thought by now that we would have figured out the best way to do it wouldn’t you? The trouble is, that, as a species, we aren’t really designed to be in the water. Fins and gills are conspicuous by their absence. Some sort of rudimentary propeller would be useful but evolution seems to think otherwise. Even the internal layout of our organs is all wrong, meaning that we constantly battle to get some bits to float whilst trying to keep other bits down.
Developing a style and method that works for the human form has been a long process and it’s one that’s far from finished. New ideas are constantly being proposed, tested, adapted and adopted or discarded.
The other day I came across the story of the Japanese Crawl. Perhaps I am very ignorant but I’d not heard of this before. The American Crawl and the Trudgen Crawl, yes, but not the Japanese version.
It dates from the late 1920s during a period when swimming was virtually unheard of in the country. No swimming representatives were sent to the 1920 Antwerp games and indeed there were only two public swimming pools in the whole of Japan. Then in 1928, against all the odds Yoshiyuki Tsurata won gold in the 200m breaststroke, only the second Olympic gold medal ever won by the country. This sparked a national interest in the sport and public pools began springing up across the country.
However, they faced a problem when it came to trying to replicate the success at the highest level. During this period swimming was dominated by the Americans. The typical build was epitomised by Johnny Weissmuller who was famously to go on to have a successful movie career portraying Tarzan. He was tall, powerful and broad-shouldered, attributes which did not apply to the average Japanese competitor.
To try and narrow the disparity the Japanese turned to scientific analysis and they set about developing a style more suited to the shorter stature of their swimmers. They studied underwater footage of Weissmuller and noticed that his method was to remain stable in the water relying on his powerful arms to propel him forward. They experimented with allowing their swimmers to roll their shoulders more and increase the length of the arm movement. They also placed a far greater emphasis on the kick. This was what became known as the Japanese Crawl.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The results were astonishing. In the 1928 Games, the Japanese swimming team had won just one gold, one silver and one bronze whilst the Americans brought back three golds, a silver and two bronze medals. By 1932 the fortunes had been completely reversed; the Americans achieved just two golds, a silver and two bronzes but the Japanese haul comprised five golds, four silvers and two bronze medals. In the process, they proved that superior technique could win out against raw power. The 100m Freestyle was won by a 15-year-old schoolboy Yasuji Mijazaki who not only won the gold but, during the semi-finals, also broke Weissmuller’s Olympic record.
And Mijazaki was not even the youngest winner in the team. That honour went to the winner of the 1500m event, Kusuo Kitamura who at 14 years and 309 days remains the youngest ever male swimmer to win a gold medal. (His overall record remained in place until 1988 when Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi won the gold in the Women’s 200m backstroke).
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to analyse the importance of the Japanese Crawl to the overall development of the stroke. In many ways it was rather ahead of its time, and indeed in the immediate aftermath of the Amsterdam Games, it tended to be dismissed by other countries as being uniquely relevant only to the shorter stature of the Japanese. Today, however, whilst the emphasis on a big kick has once more been reduced in significance, the relevance of using rotation to generate forward momentum is widely adopted. Neither should we overlook the importance of analysing the swimmer from below the surface to the eventual success the team achieved. Today, this seems an obvious and essential process but in 1932 to use of underwater cameras was in its infancy and somewhat revolutionary.
All of which makes one wonder what techniques and methods which we take for granted today will over time become outdated and irrelevant and what may develop to replace them. Like the Japanese Crawl, no doubt some innovations will prove to have elements relevant to all whilst other features will fall by the wayside. Only time will tell
The pace of change is relentless and seems to be increasing. If we were to pop into a time machine and end up a hundred years into the future I have little doubt that many new and exciting developments will have occurred.
Who knows. We might even have made a start on those propellers.
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