Since Ian Thorpe announced his comeback to swimming, there has been hot debate over whether or not he would be able to compete in a modern swimming world after four years away from the sport. Many have pointed to his timelessly efficient stroke as a reason for why he can compete in any era. But what happens if that stroke is no more? That stroke was designed for 200 and 400 meter freestyles, not for the 100 that Thorpe has said he was focusing on.
He and Swiss coach Gennadi Touretski have decided that his chances at an Olympic spot in the 100 free improve if Thorpe makes himself look more like former Touretski pupil Alexander Popov, and less like Ian Thorpe c. 2008. This news makes Thorpe’s 2012 challenge less of a “comeback” story, and more of a “reinvention” story. Think Michael Jordan’s comeback with the Wizards as a jump-shooter moreso than Michael Jordan’s ’96 return from baseball, when he was still a high-flyer.
First, check out this video from the 2004 200 free final in Athens. You can see in this video, thanks to some great underwater shots, that Thorpe swims a very controlled, highly-efficient stroke that is very much in the mode of a “catch-up” technique.
Now check out the stroke of Popov, broken down nicely into an instructional format.
You can see that Popov gets his elbows significantly higher into more of that “sharkfin” or “sailboat” position that all age groupers are taught than does the old Thorpe. He’s able to get that higher elbow lift as a result of his increased hip motion.
While we won’t find out what Thorpe’s stroke will truly look like until he reveals it in November at the Singapore stop of the Swimming World Cup, it’s been described as a sort of mutant offspring of the two freestyle variations shown above. It will be interesting to see how this affects his results in his return. Presuming that this is viewed as a change for the better, and he will have to be better than the 48.5’s that he left the sport with, does this throw out the argument that his natural freestyle stroke that carried him to so many medals in the past is not an indicator of future success? Or is he such a gifted swimmer, with such a natural feel for the watter, that it won’t matter? We’ll find out soon enough.