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David Berkoff: Changing modern swimming one kick at a time

posted Mar 21, 2012, 12:41 PM by Pat Windschitl   [ updated Mar 23, 2012, 1:39 PM ]
David Berkoff is an American swimmer who was born in 1966 and went on to medal for the US at the 1988 Seoul Olympics (Gold in Relays and Silver in 100 Back) and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (Gold in Relays and Bronze in 100 Back). He also held the world record in the 100m Backstroke from 1988-1991, and he was added as a member into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2005. While these accomplishments aren't anything to scoff at, they don't put him any higher than most other Olympians. What made Berfkoff really special was how he accomplished them. 

In the late 80's while at the University of Texas Berkoff revolutionized the 100 backstroke with his technique of swimming most of the opening lap underwater. At this point there were no surfacing distance requirements in place. He got this idea from watching former US swimmer Jesse Vassallo stay under after turns in 1984 and began experimenting with they style that year. Berkoff's coach, Joe Bernal, consulted experts in fluid dynamics at Harvard and MIT, who went on to determine that the corss-sectional drag of the 5'10", 155-pound Berkoff is less during his streamlined underwater phase than when he is stroking on the surface. Berkoff discovered soon after that he was fastest when he stays under for about 32 dolphin kicks, which brings him to the surface about 35 meters up the pool. 

After years of training with this technique he went on to experiment with it at the 1988 US Olympic trials.  "I thought I went 56-mid," he said after the race. To his amazement, the scoreboard read 54.95. He had erased Rick Carey's American record of 55.19 and the world mark of 55.00 held by Igor Poliansky of the Soviet Union. Link to full article.

Later at the meet, Berkoff and Japanese swimmer Daichi Suzuki dominated the event by going more than 33m underwater to start their 100m Backstroke. FINA quickly amended swimming guidelines to state swimmers must surface at or before the 10 meter mark, before later revising it to 15. 

Here's a video of the event. While David won during trials, Suzuki went on to out touch him in finals. Race starts 20 seconds in. 


So why does this still mater even after FINA put limits on distance underwater? Well as a coach it's disheartening to not see swimmers try to work on developing a perfect underwater kick and spending as much time underwater as possible. You might think you're faster swimming on top of the water in backstroke or butterfly, but that's just not true. If you properly develop your underwater kick you can be leaps and bounds ahead of your competition. 

Don't believe me? Watch Hill Taylor take a DQ in 50m Backstroke and dominate the race. It's not even close to being fair. 

Want another example? Here's Ryan Lochte showing off for a club during practice by going 50m underwater in 25 seconds. That's a converted 21 second short course time. Without a dive. Without even a single stroke.

But it all starts somewhere. This isn't something that you can decide to do just at meets and ignore in practice. We all start somewhere developing our kicks, whether it's trying to make it 15m, 5m, or just to the flags. The longer you spend underwater kicking butterfly off each wall and the more effort you put into developing a powerful butterfly kick will only have a positive effect on your swimming. 

It's true you can be a good swimmer without a great butterfly kick, but without it you can't be great. Having a strong underwater kick is one of the greatest differences between a high level swimmer and the highest. Here'es two last videos demonstrating this, the first is David Nolan setting the high school record in 100y backstroke with over half the race spent in streamline, and the second is Nolan leading his 400y free relay with a streamline to the 4-6th blue line. 
 

I hope you keep this in mind at your next practice. 

- Coach Pat


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