A different stroke
Swimmers like record-setting Brendan Hansen are born to breaststroke
Posted: Monday July 12, 2004 10:03AM; Updated: Monday July 12, 2004 2:30PM
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Those of us who have been hanging out here at the Olympic Swimming Trials for the last five days have been fortunate to see three world records broken so far, one by Michael Phelps in the 400 individual medley and two by Brendan Hansen, in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststrokes. While Phelps' world-record swim -- his fourth in that event -- was a thrill to witness, Hansen's two were far more significant in my view because: 1) Hansen came in third in both events four years ago and didn't make the 2000 Olympic team; 2) his records were so unexpected -- even to him -- and 3) they came in a stroke that just doesn't get many, well, strokes.
Technically difficult to do -- and not always beautiful to watch -- the breaststroke doesn't get much love from the media or from non-breaststrokers, that pool of swimmers from which all break-out stars seem to spring. Mark Spitz? Specialized in butterfly and freestyle. Same with Matt Biondi and Jenny Thompson. Janet Evans? Distance freestyle. Gary Hall Jr.? Sprint freestyle. Gary Hall Sr.? "I hated the breaststroke, I was so bad at it," says Hall Sr., who was nevertheless good enough at all the other strokes to win silver medals in the 400 IM in the 1968 Olympics and the 200 IM at the 1972 Games. Even sports photographers (according to my sample of one) aren't exactly crazy about the stroke, even though it's relatively slow, and with most swimmers breathing on every stroke, provides them plenty of opportunities to capture a swimmer's face during the action. I asked Sports Illustrated über-photographer Heinz Kluetmeier -- an underwater photography pioneer, veteran of countless swim meets and the king of the match game (a popular post-meal entertainment among SI photographers that determines which writer gets stuck with the bill) -- what was his favorite stroke to photograph. "The butterfly," he said. "That's the most dynamic stroke. The breaststroke is all right, but ..."
Well, I like the breaststroke. It was my best stroke when I swam in high school, which is not to say I was particularly good at it. I just happened to have a strong kick, honed by hours of piloting a kickboard up and down the pool alongside my teammate Jen as we gossiped about fifth-period history class. I have a certain affinity for the stroke's practitioners, too, maybe because breaststrokers tend to be, as breaststroker Staciana Stitts' coach, Dave Salo, says, "on the edge a little bit. Their stroke tends to be so quirky, it takes a little bit of a quirky personality to do it."
Hansen strikes me as funny, smart and thoughtful, though not particularly quirky or borderline insane in the mold of one-time hellion Nelson Diebel, who won the 100 breast gold medal in Barcelona just four years after leaping off a balcony and shattering both wrists on the apron of his high school pool. "This is probably the tamest group of breaststrokers we've had in a while," says Salo.
In any case, what's more important to breaststroking success than personal quirks are the right feet. "Look at the way breaststrokers stand," says Salo. "When kids come out of the womb they are either breaststrokers or they aren't. [Breaststrokers need] a lot of hip flexibility and ankle flexibility and knee strength, and those with a wide, duck-type stance can take advantage of that more normally than someone who is a straight-on walker."
Note that the breaststroke is the one stroke in which megastar Phelps doesn't threaten to dominate the rest of the world. Could Phelps, who already excels in every other stroke, become dominant in the breaststroke as well? I asked Bob Bowman, his coach at North Baltimore Aquatics. "He probably could, though he'll never have a breaststroke like Brendan Hansen," said Bowman. "Brendan's breaststroke is God-made and Michael's is man-made. He's not really built to naturally do it. Breaststrokers' feet [point out like a duck's] and Michael's [point in like a pigeon's]. I think he could get in shape and really focus on [the breaststroke] and maybe a finalist here. Whether he could win, I don't know."
That's not a question that comes up much regarding Phelps, who has had dominant victories in three events -- the 400 IM, the 200 free and the 200 fly -- so far this week. But Monday night he will face a huge challenge in 200 backstroke world-record holder Aaron Piersol, who was the top qualifier (by two seconds) in the semis. Win or lose in the backstroke, Phelps will have to swim the final of the 200 IM, an event in which he holds the world record, just a few minutes later. Soon after that, he has the semis in the 100 fly.
But an overloaded schedule is not as great a threat to Phelps' perfect win streak here as Piersol is. Which puts Piersol in a bit of an awkward spot. A lot of high-profile swimming people, including Spitz and Hall Sr., have gone on record saying they hope Phelps reaches his goal of seven -- or better -- gold medals in Athens. So if Piersol wins one of those golds instead, does he get cast as a villain instead of a victor? Let's hope not. "My goal isn't to take any of Phelps' glory," says Piersol, "it's just to preserve my own."