Breaststroke Breakthrough
By Terry Laughlin Photos by David Madison

To break through to a new level in your breaststroke, don't hammer it, polish it. Here are 8 ways to make sure your stroke is the sleekest, shiniest jewel in the pool

When KURT GROTE arrived at STANFORD University in Palo Alto, California, in 1991, he was a blank slate ready to learn everything his new coaches could teach. Seven years later, he had mastered some important lessons, but he's still a dedicated student of his stroke. The lessons he mastered helped him win three NCAA breast stroke titles and numerous U.S. championships, culminating in a world championship last Janu ary in Perth, Australia. Now in his third year of medical school, Grote continues to be a student in the pool, working toward a return to Australia for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Grote constantly fine-tunes his technique. "I'm still learning new things about the stroke. As one aspect becomes more natural, I just shift my attention to something else," he says. Technique consultant Bill Boomer gave Grote an image of the breaststroke that he still uses. "He told me, 'Think of your breaststroke as a jewel: You never hammer it, you only polish it,"' Grote says. Timing and coordination are so delicate that you can find yourself mired in frustrating periods, won dering if you'll ever "find the groove" again.

To find your groove, Grote says, you must first find your hips."The most important thing I learned in my freshman year was how to use my hips; how to drive them forward on the inscull and how to let them ride up a bit on the glide. It's still the part of technique I work on the most." Head position and breathing are two aspects of technique that have enormous influence on how well you can tap into your hip-generated power.

1. Start as a torpedo

Stay long and streamlined to carry your gliding speed faster and farther. Grote is just over 6 feet tall, but he starts each stroke with a fingertips- to-toes body line nearly 9 feet long, and stream lines to slip that line through the smallest possible "hole" in the water. While gliding in this position, lean on your chest enough to feel as if you're gliding "downhill." This helps cock your hips so they're ready to rock forward in the short-axis body rotation that generates the power that drives your stroke. Your head should be as close as possible to its natural line, which means you'll be looking down, with your head low between your arms.

2. Press to a Y
Never pull your arms back in breaststroke. Virtually every inch of your pull is sculling movements. After completing your extension and glide, con tinue to lean on your chest and elevate your hips while sweeping your hands out to a Y position. Don't apply too much pressure here. Boomer suggests sculling; as if your hand, wrist, and fore arm were a blade." Try to anchor your hands in the water; as if there were a rung to grab and draw your body toward your hands. Again, concentrate on keeping your-head in line with your spine.

3. Spin your hands in

As your hands reach the Y position, lift your el bows toward the surface. "Your elbows should stay at the eye line," says Boomer. If you use your high elbows as a hinge for the inward sweep of your hands and forearms, you'll create the leverage you need to use your abdominal muscles to bring your hips forward. The action is similar to a stomach crunch. This takes the pulling load off your weaker arm muscles and shifts it to your far more powerful torso muscles. Once you begin the insweep, scull your hands directly back to ward the front. When you do it properly, your hands complete all their sweeps in front of your chin. "I always keep my hands as far in front of me as possible," Grote says. "Most swimmers pull back too far; when they think they're only sculling, they're actually stroking the right way."

4. Breathe with body lift

Don't lift your head to breathe. Keep it in the same position at all times."When I get it right, it's almost as if I could swim with a neck brace on, Grote says. As your hands squeeze, they lift your shoulders up and forward; Grote describes it as a "shoulder shrug"; and your torso lift carries your mouth clear of the water. "I move my whole body as a single unit, including my head," Grote says.

5. Begin the lunge

Your head has reached its highest point, and you re still looking down. Your arms are finishing the inscull by squeezing into a compact line. Your hips are also at their best point for using them as a platform to launch your upper body forward as you kick. Think of your body as a bow and arrow, says Boomer. "Your body becomes a bow that stores energy in your hips; in the next moment it becomes an arrow as you dive forward and release the energy from the shoulder end." Keep a low, narrow profile as you get set to dive forward.

6. Dive Forward

This is where you maximize your stroke length."The angle of re-entry is critical to creating the greatest possible wave length," says Boomer. Keep your head and shoulders hunched low as you finish your insweep, so your angle of re-entry is shallow, causing your momentum to channel forward. Return your hands to their full extension before your face re-enters the water, and make sure the crown of your head follows your fingertips forward. The potential energy created by lifting so much of your body mass above the water on the insweep is converted into kinetic energy going forward. If your hands stall under your chin, you'll sink instead of driving forward.

7. Streamline again

Complete the lunge by returning to the long, streamlined, downhill-sliding position you started in. Squeeze your body from fingertips to toes into the longest, sleekest torpedo position. If you slice just inches below the surface, you'll avoid more drag, since drag is far less just under the water than at the surface.

8. Get it together

Keep your stroke in shape with drills, says Grate."Nothing puts my stroke right as quickly as stroke drills." In fact, 10 minutes before he went off the blocks for his world championships final in Perth, Grote was in the warm-up pool, getting in a few last-minute tune-up lengths with stroke drills. That's clearly a strategy that works.

FITNESS SWIMMER January/February 1999