Phelps Chop

August 16th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Bowlers and golfers — top ones at least — learn early and indelibly to follow through. The long glide and whole-body continuation of action are essential.

That metaphor recurs in sports, becomes perceived wisdom, and turns into cliché. It insinuates itself in diplomacy, management and political coverage. We all must follow through. We all must glide to victory and turn spasms of competition into the last moment ease of the winner.

However, it is not always so. Michael Phelps’ tissue-paper thin 100-fly win in the Olympics yesterday was in equal parts extraordinary luck and his contrarian nature.  His impulse when fighting from behind was to force the ragged and awkward partial stroke as his last. In contrast, the loser by a single one-hundredth of a second, Serbian Milorad Cavic, went with the follow-through, the final glide propelled by his 50-plus second exertion.

The pic is heavily adapted from a Nick Laham shot. Phelps’ winning touch is on the right.

That made perfect sense. It was in this case perfectly the wrong decision.

I was a competitive swimmer in high school and college, a breaststroker. I was well below Olympic class and didn’t start until I was 15, but I learned a few things, including getting power from the glide. In breast, even more than fly, the start and turn underwater strokes often make the winner. Likewise, you learn to glide exactly long enough so you don’t fight your forward momentum when you start your next stroke.

I also learned to guess that last stroke. There’s a choice of:

  • completing the arm and leg combo, propelling to the wall on the glide
  • if the distance is pretty short, using a spasmodic arm-only stroke
  • it it’s a tiny bit farther, but not a stroke away, using the more powerful legs that can also create more drag

Swimmers put in hundreds of thousands to millions of strokes in practice and races. We learn how many it takes per 25-yard or 50-meter length. That works much better in practice than races though. When you come from behind or push to stay in front, you have that half-stroke or full-stroke differential.

In the 100-fly race, the minuscule Phelps victory the electronic timers showed brought an understandable protest. The tiny pic slices concurred and convinced even the Serbian swimmer and coach — Cavic, 50:59; Phelps, 50:58.

It would just as easily gone the other way. Phelps said that his chop-the-wall impulse on the last mini-stroke seemed to have cost him his race, his tie with Mark Spitz for seven golds in one Olympics, and his chance for eight. “I really thought that cost me the race, but it happened to be the direct opposite,” Phelps said. “If I would have glided, I would have ended up being way too long…Trying to just take sort of a short, fast stroke to try to get my hand on the wall first – it turned out to be in my favor.”

He’s so mellow that he wouldn’t have been destroyed if he had taken the wrong urge and lost by the same time sliver. This will give Cavic a lifetime of conversation starters and finishers.

Others, including me, could drag this sports metaphor up and down the hall until it’s ragged and torn. We know it doesn’t apply to non-speed-measured sports like golf or shotput. We can never accurately weigh how much luck or keen instinct served Phelps best here.

We do know that he’s smart enough to handle all the stimulus and data flooding him in those last few feet of the race. He was also gutsy enough to take that sudden risk that made the tiny, yet huge, difference. Sometimes slow and steady does win, sometimes it’s form and follow through, and others it’s hellbent plunge at what proves to be the exactly perfect moment.


One Response

  1. Marty Hu says:

    Interesting swimming insight.

    I like your closing sentence.

Leave a Reply