Molly Hannis is electric.
Coming off one of the most supercharged closing bursts of any race at U.S. Olympic Trials, Hannis is riding a high-voltage current into Rio de Janeiro.
But the 24-year-old Tennessee Aquatics pro is also unafraid to leave the mainstream – her Olympic-qualifying surge was kicked off by the unorthodox decision to skip the traditional breaststroke pullout off the final wall of the 200 breast.
It’s this unique combination of electricity and ingenuity that makes Hannis one of Team USA’s fastest-rising – and most fascinating – Olympians.
Electricity: Powering 200 Meters
During her college career, Hannis was one of the nation’s most successful sprint breaststrokers. She’s an SEC champ and 3-time SEC runner-up in the 100 breast and still holds the second-fastest 50 breaststroke split in NCAA history at 25.88.
But now, Hannis is preparing for an Olympic appearance in the longest breaststroke event there is: the 200 in long course meters.
Hannis’s coach Bret Lundgaard said that transition was all about Hannis learning to use her elite speed efficiently.
“The challenge with Molly is that she’s kind of like Pikachu,” Lundgaard said, “in the sense that she has all this electricity, but she can use it to absolutely fry herself. She can use it all at one time and just blow up, more or less.”
But huge improvements in her pacing ability have given Hannis a guide to allocate her energy more efficiently, Lundgard says.
“I don’t know much about Pokemon,” Hannis said with a laugh when asked about the comparison, “but that’s probably pretty accurate.
“At the beginning of college, I had next to no control over the 200. I’d go out as fast as I could and try to hang on. I hadn’t figured out the 200, I hadn’t taken the time to explore the spaces in the stroke or the efficiency of the stroke.”
But improvements in her pacing abilities have had massive impacts on Hannis’s 200, both Hannis and Lundgaard say. And that combination of world-class speed with the veteran awareness of pacing has made Hannis a nightmare of an electrical storm for opponents to deal with.
The 200 breast final at Olympic Trials is a perfect example. A smooth and controlled Hannis went out in 1:10.5, sitting 3rd at the halfway point and almost a second and a half behind the leader. At the 150, Hannis had slid to fourth, about a full second out of an Olympic qualifying spot.
But Hannis was only storing up a charge. If onlookers felt their hair start to stand on end with static, or heard the distant peals of thunder, the source soon became clear as Hannis unleashed a bolt of lightning over the final 50, closing in a field-best 36.1 to reel in the top 3 and nab an Olympic berth in 2:24.39.
“She can swim breaststroke for days and she has a ton of speed,” said Lundgaard. “And when you put it together, that’s a pretty good combination.”
Creativity: Thinking Outside The Box (Or On Top Of The Water)
Even more visible than Hannis’s pacing and electricity, though, was her unorthodox decision to skip the underwater pullout on that final length, leading to a closing split that bested the entire field by half a second or more.
It’s a technical twist that is classic Tennessee. The Volunteers program has become well-known in swimming circles for outside-the-box thinking – most notably their top-arm breakout technique in 2013 and a corresponding on-the-side backstroke breakout the next year.
The decision to skip the final pullout was the product of working with a towing system at the University of Tennessee developed by Mark Glauth.
“One of the things we have continually seen is that there’s a critical moment when you transition from underwater to your first cycle of swimming,” Lundgaard says. A swimmer is never faster than the moment they push off the wall or enter the water from a start – and the key to fast swimming, he says, is maintaining that speed into what is known as the breakout stroke, the first stroke off the wall.
“If we can start at a higher speed, we have a higher jumping-off point, and we have a higher ceiling for that 50 split,” Lundgaard says.
Lundgaard and Hannis were toying with different techniques using the machine when Hannis suggested trying a breakout without a pullout.
Both coach and swimmer were quick to point out that there are multiple variables involved in the success of the idea, and that skipping a pullout isn’t for every swimmer. But for Hannis, it turned out there was tangible merit to forgoing the final pullout – when she was most fatigued and had the most trouble carrying speed through a pullout – in favor of getting to the surface more quickly and with more speed.
“Molly actually initiated this, which is a really good example of the creativity of her mind,” said Lundgaard, who went on to say Hannis has “one of the most creative minds of anyone I will probably ever coach.”
“Originally, it was something that I did to help me get to the surface a little quicker and eliminate anxiety a little bit,” Hannis said. “By the last 50, you’re a little bit more fatigued, and having to stay underwater for 5+ seconds can be pretty taxing.”
But experimenting with the technique started showing another benefit: carrying more speed from the push-off into the rest of the length. Hannis said she’d been experimenting with the idea in practice and meets for several years before her big swim in Omaha.
Heading into semifinals of the 200 at Trials, Hannis and Lundgaard designed a somewhat-flexible race plan that would allow Hannis to experiment with anything she felt she needed to make the Olympic team. That race wound up including the no-pullout technique, and it worked well enough that the two decided to make the idea a part of her finals swim. The addition wound up spurring on one of the meet’s best comeback qualifications.
Based on breaststroke rules, dropping the pullout also means dropping the single downward dolphin kick before it. Hannis merely pushes off the wall, slides to the surface and begins her breakout stroke.
The downside, Lundgaard says, is that skipping a pullout adds extra swimming cycles to a race that is already long and tiring. That’s why Hannis hasn’t extended her “no-pullout” strategy to the earlier pullouts. Both remain convinced that a pullout is more effective than no pullout off a start, but neither rules out the idea of experimenting with the middle two pullouts down the road.
Breaststroke Rulebook: Responding To Criticism
Like many breaststrokers in the modern era, Hannis has faced criticism from fans over a stroke some call illegal.
But both Lundgaard and Hannis say they’ve pored over the rulebook, consulted with USA Swimming and underwater race footage and are convinced Hannis’s stroke is within the rules.
“Sometimes it’s hard to hear,” Hannis said of the fan criticism, which has been harsh at times. “Anything new and different is a little scary. And it’s something that people should question.
“But with the amount of time we’ve put into making sure my stroke is legal, I think it’s important to take a step back and really look at the stroke. Because it is legal.”
Lundgaard says fan concern about breaststroke legality in the big picture stems from high-profile cases like Cameron van der Burgh, who admitted that he used extra dolphin kicks on pullouts during his gold medal-winning 100 breast at the London Olympics.
“I think everybody became very hyper-sensitive to the fact that people are obviously, deliberately trying to cheat,” Lundgaard said. “And rightfully so.”
Hannis isn’t criticized for dolphin kicks during pullouts, though. Instead, some allege that she uses dolphin kicks illegally during her stroke.
“The problem is that very few people know the actual legality of the breaststroke,” Lundgaard said, “especially in terms of what your legs can do with an upkick.”
FINA’s rules on breaststroke only disallow downward dolphin kicks during the breaststroke, not upward kicks, which tends to be a main criticism of Hannis. Swimmers are even allowed to break the surface with their feet, as long as they don’t then add a downward dolphin kick to the stroke after breaking the surface.
FINA rule SW 7.4, regarding the legs during breaststroke:
SW 7.5 The feet must be turned outwards during the propulsive part of the kick. Alternating movements or downward butterfly kicks are not permitted except as in SW 7.1 [Writer’s note: this rule regards the single allowed dolphin kick during the underwater pullout]. Breaking the surface of the water with the feet is allowed unless followed by a downward butterfly kick.
Lundgaard says there are multiple benefits of doing the legal upward dolphin kick, and that he and Hannis have put a major focus on making sure that part of her stroke is within the rules. Nonetheless, he says, criticism still comes from swimmers, coaches and fans who mistakenly believe that dolphin kicks of any kind are illegal during breaststroke.
“She’s never once been disqualified at any major meet because of it,” he says. “We’ve watched the video, we’ve talked to officials, we’ve talked to USA Swimming. The reason she’s never been disqualified is because she’s never done a down kick.”
Both Hannis and Lundgaard say the often-critical fan reaction is merely a part of the evolution of the stroke.
“Things have been done a certain way and looked a certain way for so long,” Hannis said, “but as the sport evolves, things are going to start to change here and there.
“I just think that criticism stems from not having enough understanding of the rules or being a little bit skeptical of something that’s different or a little bit new.”
Race video from Olympic Trials is unavailable. But we’ve included three videos of Hannis’s stroke below.
This is her 200 breast at the Mesa Pro Swim Series, her most recent swim with race video we could dig up:
Here is Hannis’s 200 breast at last summer’s U.S. Nationals in San Antonio:
This is an old video (uploaded in 2013), but gives some great underwater looks at Hannis’s stroke and kick:
Onward to Rio
In Rio, the pair will be keeping their eye on the continued evolution of the stroke, even as they stand in the forefront of at least one aspect of that realm.
“Breaststroke can be taken in so many different directions,” Hannis said, speaking on her unique stroke and the Tennessee twist on the underwater pullout. “It’s possible it could be going this direction with way way I’ve been swimming, but somebody else could come along and come up with something new, and then all of a sudden it switches.
“It’s a constantly evolving stroke.”
But taking priority over that are the Olympics themselves, where Hannis will fulfill a lifelong dream of representing Team USA on swimming’s biggest stage. She’s continuing to better bottle her unique brand of electricity, with an eye on more control and even more time drops in Rio.
“I feel like I have a lot of room to improve,” Hannis said. “The fact that I’m still experimenting with the way I’m racing the 200 and evolving the way I’m swimming it and whatnot, I think I still have a good amount of room in terms of still dropping time.”
Lundgaard agrees. “I don’t think she’s really all that close to hitting her ceiling in terms of that event,” he said.
It’s too far out for a forecast to predict whether lightning strikes will be in the cards for Rio. But with Hannis in the pool, there will be no shortage of sparks at least.
“I’m excited to race and see what happens,” she said.