Swimswam Editor in Chief Braden Keith spotted an odd frame at the beginning of the women’s 100 backstroke semi-final heat last night with Missy Franklin. Franklin appeared oddly disconnected from the knee down as she released from the block. Check out this photo:
That’s Missy third from the top. Even at the elite level, you can see that some swimmers drag their feet off the backstroke start, but what sets Franklin apart is how far the rest of her body is out of the water.
Missy Franklin has never been particularly skilled at the backstroke start, although she has swung back and forth from having a competent release and struggles like the one above. Many of these went unnoticed because Franklin had a period where she was so dominant.
For example, check out this start from the 2012 Olympics. Franklin won the 100 backstroke there in 58.33 and was at the height of her powers. However, on closer inspection her start was a disaster and she spent the entire race making up for the ground she lost at the beginning.
Although we don’t get the same angle as above, let’s look at some frames from the race that make me think that Missy suffered from a similar starting problem.
This is Missy upon entry to the water (farthest to the left)
Look at how far her feet are underneath the water, as well as her upper body. This means that she has a short entry and plenty of resistance from her feet right from the beginning. Watch the race in realtime and see how ground she needs to make up:
One of the other reasons that Missy’s starts have been less commented upon is that body size makes a big difference in starts. If she were a smaller swimmer, the lack of precision off the block would likely hold her back from being competitive even within the US.
Missy is using a technique that means there is a high probability of her getting a poor start. Once again, look at the position she gets herself into at Minneapolis Arena Pro Series event this past December:
There’s Franklin again, in the pink suit 3rd from the bottom.
So why does this happen?
It could be easy to say that Franklin is “slipping” off the block, but that is a symptom of the technique that Franklin is using on the wall.
Simply put, Franklin makes a lot of mistakes in her start that she has in common with age group swimmers. It is a combination of these mistakes that can lead her into this situation.
This slow motion start (actually one of her better ones) from the Arena Grand Prix Santa Clara in 2013 shows some of them:
That is Missy fourth from the bottom. First observe how she loads up on the blocks. Her posture is not aligned and set on the blocks, she has her back already arched a little, probably in an attempt to get off faster and mitigate some of her other flaws. Then she throws her head, instead of controlling her body. As a result of the lack of body connection and head throw, her legs are practically on their own.
For one final video, here is a great example of how much difference great backstroke starting technique can make, from the master herself Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin is directly below Franklin in this video, 4th from the top.
Although Coughlin initiates the start with her head, she quickly corrects into near perfect posture, then connects her upper and lower body so that everything enters the water through one hole. At 15m, it’s game over!
These are skills that can be taught to all swimmers but are often undervalued despite the difference they can make in any race.
Chris DeSantis is currently working as a swimming consultant focused on technical skills and individualized mental training. For more information visit the Chris DeSantis Coaching page on Facebook.