Last week, Turkey’s Emri Sakci closed out 2021 with a bang, shattering Cameron van der Burgh’s 50 breast SCM World Record with a 24.95 and becoming the first man to break the 25 second barrier. The South African legend, who at one point simultaneously held the World Record in the 50 and 100 breast in both short course and long course, took to twitter to comment on Sakci’s achievement and the stroke’s evolution since he set his World Record in 2009.
Over 12 years the stroke has evolved so much – incredible to overlay my 2009 tape with this years World Champs.
— Cameron van der Burgh OIS (@Cameronvdburgh) December 27, 2021
Sakci Race Video (24.95)
Van der Burgh Race Video (25.25)
Side by Side Comparison
When watching both races, it is clear that Sakci’s stroke is different from Van der Burgh’s, utilizing a higher tempo, more body-driven style to generate speed. As Van der Burgh alluded to, the style is not just 100% unique to Sakci, as several of the top sprint breaststrokers in the world now utilize a similar form, including men’s 100 SCM World Record holder Ilya Shymanovich of Belarus and American Molly Hannis, the second-fastest female SCY 100 breaststroker of all time.
Throughout their international careers, these swimmers have been the subject of controversy, with fans (and SwimSwam comment sections) frequently invoking words like dolphin, butterfly and DQ after their races. Despite this, stroke infraction DQs are rare in international competition, though several breaststrokers were DQ’d at the recent SC Worlds (including Sakci), primarily related to downward dolphin kicks into and out of the walls that were caught on an underwater camera.
So what has “changed” since van der Burgh’s World Record swim, where several swimmers now seemingly toe the line of legality to push the limits of the stroke?
The first place to look is the hips. In the 2009 race, all of the swimmers’ hips, including van der Burgh’s, stay relatively steady at the surface when compared to Sakci’s 2021 race. Sacki utilizes more hip action to use his body as a propulsive tool, generating speed by lunging forward with his shoulders and chest, while allowing his hips to rise significantly as his hands shoot forward. The extra momentum generated by lunging with his whole upper body is maximized by his hip action, which allows the body to flow into the next stroke.
That action is coupled with a small, fast kick that comes earlier in the stroke cycle than van der Burgh’s. In van der Burgh’s race, the kick timing comes slightly delayed, as the South African’s feet are still directly behind his body as he starts his breath, bringing his heels up quickly as he starts to shoot his hands forward. Comparatively Sakci’s kick starts slightly earlier, with his heels coming up during his breath. He then is able to pair his upper body lunge with his feet generating power, further taking advantage of his body-driven stroke.
The final motion is with his feet at the end of the kick, and where much of the controversy surrounding this style of breaststroke comes from. As a reminder, here is the FINA rule book verbiage on breaststroke kick:
- 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 [during the pullout]. Breaking the surface of the water with the feet is allowed unless followed by a downward butterfly kick.
The nuance in this rule comes from the phrase “downward butterfly kick,” but makes no mention of upward movement of the feet. This is where swimmers have begun to use the rule to their advantage, as the added hip movement allows them to squeeze their feet below their body line, and then lift the feet up to come even with the body, thus creating the more body-drive, dolphin-like motion that fans and commentators have come to criticize.
Interestingly, this style of breaststroke has been far more productive thus far in sprints and short course than in long course, as many of the world’s top 200 breaststrokers, including Arno Kamminga and Anton Chupkov, still employ a more “traditional” version of the stroke.