American swimmer Kieran Smith is using a unique new relay start at the Short Course World Championships this week in Dubai, starting with two feet behind the starting wedge before jumping over and diving in.
The move was noticed by Arizona State assistant coach Herbie Behm, who posted a clip of the technique on Twitter.
Kieran Smith starts with both feet behind the wedge on relays pic.twitter.com/RG4YRNczG3
— Herbie Behm (@SirHerb_the3rd) December 19, 2021
Smith, who trains collegiately at the University of Florida, raced on Sunday as a member of the American men’s 200 free relay. With Michael Andrew heading home early, the Americans had to force some pieces onto this relay, and that included Smith, who anchored the team in 21.30. In prelims (where the above video was shot), he split 21.20 on the team’s 3rd leg.
In finals, he left the block in 2nd place but was run down by Italian anchor Alessandro Miressi (20.61) and Dutch anchor Thom de Boer (20.41).
A version of this start, where a swimmer starts with one foot on the starting wedge and one foot behind it, known as a step-over start, was first popularized by the Texas Longhorns in NCAA swimming. That has now become the standard for many top collegiate teams in the United States.
Smith’s version, with both feet starting behind the wedge, is probably an evolution of the “hop jump” start that was being used by some swimmers before the wedge, where a swimmer starts at the back of the block and hops toward the front – in theory to create more potential energy toward the water.
The most obvious pitfall here is the potential to clip a foot on the wedge, which would be disastrous – both for the result and with the potential for injury. Shy of that, the precision needed to still land the front foot at the front of the block is very high. And even then, the timing becomes very complicated – especially on international relays, where an athlete might be less familiar with the swimmer coming into the wall.
It also adds complexity without an obvious benefit. As UNCW head coach Bobby Guntoro said in reply to Behm’s Tweet – “While it is intriguing…but a simple movement has the ability to generate more power.”
Guntoro says he would not recommend that start, even acknowledging that Smith “executed (it) perfectly.”
Guntoro was an assistant coach leading the sprint group at NC State when they swam some of the fastest yards legs in NCAA history.
Smith was the leadoff leg of his only relay swim in Tokyo in the finals of the 800 free relay. Race video from the 2021 NCAA Championships, where Smith swam the 3rd leg of Florida’s 200 free relay among other swims, shows him doing a more traditional one foot step-over start. That indicates a relatively new technique for Smith, who is versatile enough to swim sprint relays even as the Olympic bronze medalist in the individual 400 free.
There is probably more research that needs to be done to determine if this start is, in fact, faster, but even then, the conversation will still circle back to a challenging risk-reward proposition.