Monday, July 06, 2009

Fastest Freestyle Ever

The men's 400 meter freestyle relay at the Beijing olympics was amazing. The French team absolutely crushed the world record time, and the Americans squeaked past them. Right up until the last 50 meters, the French were in front.

Don't talk to me about Michael Phelps, the second-slowest guy on our team. Let's talk about Jason Lezak. Jason gets in the water at 2:38. (Watch the video here.) Look at his stroke compared to France's Bernard Alain. He looks pretty similar (to my untrained eye). And he turns in a time on that first 50m that is pretty similar: 21.50 versus Bernard's 21.27.

And then, after that last flip turn, Jason Lezak swims the next 50 meters in 24.52 seconds. Which sounds slow compared to those first 50 meters, but it's so fast compared to everyone else that he was one of only 3 guys in that race to swim in less than 47 seconds... and he beat the other two guys (both French) by 0.57 and 0.67 seconds. That's HUGE. He nearly did it in less than 46 seconds.

Watching back in August, it was immediately apparent to me that Jason changed his stroke after his flip turn. This morning I looked up the video on the internet, and it raises more questions than it answers.

First, Jason takes 34 strokes to Bernard's 42. It's not like Bernard is some short French dude -- at 6'5", the guy is actually an inch taller than Jason. Discounting the 7 meters that both guys got off their kick at the end, Jason managed to go 49.8 inches on each stroke, vs the paltry 40.3 that Bernard manages. And, since Jason is going faster, he's got more drag and so his hands should be slipping back more. Where did he come up with an extra nine inches?

For those last 34 strokes, Jason's form appears to go to hell. His timing is no longer even -- the delay after throwing his left arm forward is less than the delay after his right. Worse still, the change in timing has his left hand grabbing the air that he's blowing out, which has to be terrible for maximizing the purchase on the water the whole way back. Compare to Bernard, who efficiently vents smaller bursts of air under the left portion of his body while his left arm is airborne.

Notice something else that Jason is doing. He's ducking his head down after he takes a breath. And watch his right shoulder roll. When Jason pulls back with his right hand, he launches a portion of his torso up, over the water, and then when he pulls back with his left hand he is porpoising the right half of his body over that water.

Has Jason incorporated some of the body motion of the butterfly into his freestyle?