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Peggy Shinn Blog - From breaststroke to butterfly

July 03, 2008, 1:09 p.m. (ET)

At swimming Olympic Trials on July 1, the NBC commentators noted that Michael Phelps has not lost the 200-meter butterfly since August 2002. And when he broke the world record in 2001 at age 15, he was the youngest male world record holder in swimming history. Since then, Phelps has broken his own 200m fly record five times.

Impressive, especially in a stroke that makes most of us mere mortals gasp for air. I'd rather dog paddle a lap than do butterfly.

Who thought of this stroke? I wondered.

So I googled "butterfly stroke history" and learned that it started as a variant of breaststroke. In the 1903s, a University of Iowa swim coach ironically named Dave Armbruster tried pulling his arms out of the water and thrusting them forward. This method would overcome the drag of pushing his arms forward underwater after each breast stroke. The dolphin kick was "invented" either in the early 20th century or in 1935 by University of Iowa swimmer Jack Sieg, who found that swimming like a fish propelled him swiftly through the pool. Armbruster and Sieg then combined the techniques, but the dolphin kick wasn't yet allowed in competition. Or so claims Wikipedia.

At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Maria Lenk from Brazil was the first woman to try this arms-over-the-water technique in the women's 200m breaststroke. According to David Wallenchinsky in The Complete Book of the Olympics, she was eliminated in the semifinals. At the 1952 Olympics, John Davies from Australia was the last swimmer to win a gold medal in the Olympics using the overhand breaststroke technique. In January 1953, FINA declared butterfly as its own style.

Women contested the 100-meter butterfly and men the 200m fly at the 1956 Olympics. But it wreaked havoc among the world's best breaststrokers. Gail Peters Roper, who qualified for the 1952 Games using the overhand breaststroke, was hoping for another trip to the Olympics in 1956, felt like she was "cut in half," she told Virginia Sower, who wrote about Roper in USMS Swimmer (March/April 2005) -- the magazine of United States Masters Swimming, Inc. She never has perfected the butterfly, she claims.

IMs (individual medleys combining freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and fly) proved even trickier. Swimmers had to master both the breaststroke and butterfly. After the 1953 ruling, national IM record holder Burwell "Bumpy" Jones, wrote Sower, spent an entire summer learning the new official breaststroke.

So you'd think breaststrokers would race butterfly too. But breaststrokers seem to have become their own species, while butterfly is usually raced by freestylers. Mark Spitz won his seven golds either racing freestyle or butterfly (he swam the butterfly leg in the 4x100 medley relay).

Phelps at least dabbles in breaststroke. In addition to his world records in 200m fly and free, he currently (as of July 3,2008) holds records in the 200m and 400m IM as well. I wonder how fast he would be if he could swim the overhand breaststroke. Or the dog paddle.


Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This blog was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.