Cautioning his countrymen against the latest trend in freestyle technique, Howard Firby, a Canadian swimming expert, wrote last March: "The vaunted 'modern Australian freestyle' (high revs, two-beat kicks, so-called 'power' stroking) expounded so effusively by always-expounding Forbes Carlile, is just another style, and a questionable one at that. I wonder if those who use it enjoy their swimming? Canadian coaches should ignore it: in fact, our swimmers are already superior in technique to the Australians."
When this brickbat thrown by Firby struck the solid, resolute form of Swimming Coach Forbes Carlile in Sydney, it shattered on impact, eliciting roars of laughter from its target. When under attack, Forbes Carlile loves to laugh, and in this instance laughter was warranted.
First off, there is no such thing as a "modern Australian freestyle," because the freestyle is not a stroke but a category of swimming events in which any stroke is allowed. Furthermore, since the early '30s, when the leg-thumping, slow-stroking Japanese turned the happy-time sport of swimming into a national ordeal, no coach worth the name has considered any stroke, slow or fast, something to "enjoy." And still further, be it a delight or an agony, in competitive swimming as in all of life, it is hard to argue with success. Three years ago, using the two-beat kick and "fast-revving" stroke condemned by Firby, Forbes Carlile's pupil Shane Gould broke every world freestyle record in the book in eight months—something no other fast- or slow-stroking man or woman ever had done or will easily do. Carlile's latest prodigy, 14-year-old Jenny Turrall, a two-beater who takes 62 strokes per 50-meter pool length, was world class across the board when she was 13 and has broken the 1,500-meter record five times, leaving her best rivals several body lengths behind.
In the past 70 years, swimming powers have come and gone, but Australia has managed to hang in there, thanks largely to "always-expounding" Forbes Carlile and a handful of other restless coaches of revolutionary bent. Firby's statement had come on the heels of the last Commonwealth Games, held in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was at those same games that Carlile's windmilling tyke and her fast-revving teammates won seven freestyle titles and lost one—to a New Zealander—leaving Canada, the nation "superior in technique," only four second places and lesser scraps. And at last month's New Zealand Games, also held in Christchurch, Turrall swam to three firsts—in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and the 400-meter individual medley—as well as a third in the 200-meter freestyle.
Considering the preponderant evidence, what prompted a Canadian expert suddenly to heave a brick made of such seemingly unsubstantial clay at an Australian half a world away?
Perhaps it is because in brickbat throwing, as in more classic forms of the hunt, the real challenge lies in the quality of the prey. For certain, Forbes Carlile is a challenging target. He is a rare and curious bird, at times prominent as a peacock, but never an easy mark. For one thing he is often on the move, here today and anywhere tomorrow. For another, this is not the first time a potshot has been leveled at him—in his quest for knowledge he has almost done himself in several times—and after 30 years he is still aflap with new ideas. Forbes Carlile is steeped in the lore of swimming and stroke dynamics; he is disciplined in the science and theories of physiology and is loaded with empirical fact; but, for all that, he is generally open-minded, if on occasion he can be as unconventional as the Mad Hatter.
Early on, before Carlile became known the world around, his far-out experiments and total involvement in sports physiology made him a favorite of Australian papers and journals, which often featured him as they did Shirley Temple, Winston Churchill, Al Capone, Sir Donald Bradman, Leopold and Loeb and other characters whose life stories paid off in the telling and re-telling. Thirty years ago when Carlile swam around in sharky Sydney Harbor to test the diffusion rate of various muslin fabric bags filled with copper acetate "shark repellant" he was instant news. His tests became even better copy later on, after it was proved that the copper acetate was about as effective against hungry sharks as a pinch of snuff.
But Carlile has never been the kind of general who sends troops where he would not go himself. Often in his research he has been his own most enthusiastic guinea pig. In a study of the effect of warming up on athletic performance, he has stuck thermocoupled needles into his own legs to find out how fast and drastically muscle temperatures rise and fall during intermittent periods of mild activity and rest. Bucking the common opinion of coaches that passive warming with hot baths or showers was enervating, if not downright debilitating, he put himself through a series of 220-yard swims with and without a hot-water warm-up, finding that after an eight-minute shower as hot as he could stand, his times improved 1�%. Figuring that his performances might have been affected by preconceived notions, he persuaded 16 dutiful Olympic prospects to put up with a similar program of alternating swims. Thirteen of the 16—including six skeptics who insisted the hot-water ordeal left them as limp as rag dolls—swam better times whenever they were preheated. The average improvement was about 1%, which in top competition today is often the difference between first and sixth place. Four of Carlile's Australian swimmers who went to the 1948 Olympics in England preheated themselves, and three recorded all-time bests.
Although dispassionate, precise data is what he always seeks, when Carlile recalls the swimmers he parboiled in the interest of science, he is hard put to contain himself. As he now relates, roaring exuberantly, "After an eight-minute hot bath, they were not just pink. Pink was not the word. They were bright red, sweating and staggering, some to the point where we almost had to help them onto the starting blocks."
In 1953, after a truculent horse he was riding threw him over its head, Carlile tried hypnotism to rid himself of a lingering backache. Impressed by his own recovery, he experimented with posthypnotic suggestion on some of his swimming prot�g�s, achieving what at best might be called mixed results. Through hypnotic suggestion he was able to help a number of swimmers with minor hang-ups, such as dislike of cold water. But in other cases he ran into a problem that practitioners of hypnotism have long recognized: there is always a risk that the suggestion offered will be misinterpreted by the subject. When Carlile implanted the idea that Olympic butterflyer Brian Wilkinson would not feel fatigue in his arms, Wilkinson did poorly the next time off the blocks. "It backfired badly," Carlile recalls with a customary outburst of self-demeaning laughter. "Wilkinson not only did not feel fatigue in his arms, but he complained that he felt as if he were swimming with no arms at all."