The Evolution of Butterfly: Is Yuya’s Dolphin Diving The ‘Next Big Thing’?

There are many different ways to swim the 200 butterfly, and throughout the course of history, several swimmers have “changed the game” and helped the sport evolve. Our own Gold Medal Mel Stewart comes to mind. He is credited with making “side-breathing” famous. Side-breathing is a technique used to help swimmers stay flat in the water and maintain body position. As the stroke continues to evolve, however, you have to wonder if there are more efficient way to teach the stroke or if these standouts are simply just anomalies.

When Mel was 13 years old, he went 1:59.9 in the 200 yard butterfly breathing to the side, rather than picking his head up in front of him, and from then on, he was hooked. He went on to win multiple gold medals and break world records using the side-breathing technique.

Michael Phelps is another swimmer that has helped change the 200 butterfly. While most coaches will tell you to settle into a breathing pattern during any butterfly race, Phelps is famous for, among other things, breathing every stroke. If you watched the men’s 200 butterfly final at the 2015 World University Games today, you would have seen a few of the swimmers side-breathing and almost every swimmer breathing every stroke.

There was one very unique stroke, however. In the video above, Japanese swimmer Yajima Yuya is swimming in Lane 2 on the bottom of your screen. If you pay attention to his stroke, you will notice that his technique is much different than the other finalists.

Yajima went on to win the silver medal with a time of 1:55.73, but the race was very non-conventional. You can see that he heavily relies on his legs and “dolphin dives” on every stroke. His hand entry is very choppy, and the stroke is broken into pieces. Most coaches will teach their swimmers not to hesitate when the enter the water; to start the next stroke cycle as soon as their hands get back out front, but he doesn’t do that. He takes one quick stroke and then dives back under, gliding out as if he was stretching out a 200 breaststroke.

It is becoming more common for breaststrokers to take fewer stroker per lap, but will we see the same trend with butterfly? Both breaststroke and butterfly are short axis strokes, and with swimmers developing stronger underwaters everyday, is it possible dolphin diving will become the new trend in butterfly? The most visible effect is a relative lack of turbulence created in the water as compared to the swimmers around him.

There’s no stature-based reason for this different stroke; Yuya stands 5’11” tall according to his official bio, which is about average for 200 butterfliers (who tend to be a little shorter than backstrokers and sprint freestylers, for example). His countrymate Masayuki Omemoto doesn’t use the stroke, either.

If you were to ask a coach, most would say that swimming the 200 butterfly like Yajima did wouldn’t end well, but somehow it did. Some may think dolphin diving during butterfly is crazy, and as a coach, the thought of one of my swimmers dolphin diving makes me cringe, but it could be worth a conversation. Even now, many coaches will argue that breathing every stroke in the 200 butterfly is crazy, but it worked for Michael Phelps.

The only other swimmer that we could think of that successfully swims like Yajima did is Masters champion Nadine Day. There may be others as well, but it certainly isn’t very common.

Sometimes we need to take a step back and recognize there is more than one way to swim fast. As a coach, it’s your job to help your swimmer discover what works best for them. So now I have to ask, is it possible dolphin diving with a strong kick could be beneficial in the 200 butterfly?

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7 years ago

*Note on side breathing*
“Some Butterfly swimmers breathe to the side. The usual reasons given for breathing this way are to save energy and maintain a ;more horizontal body position. Some believe that the energy cost of lifting the head will be reduced if they rotate the face to the side, as they do in front crawl. They also feel that it helps them maintain good horizontal alignment because the act of lifting the head out of the water tends to submerge the hips. This reasoning is FALLACIOUS because it overlooks an important difference between the butterfly and front crawl.”

-Ernest W. Maglishcho, PhD-

7 years ago

I wouldn’t say this is anything new. Lazlso Cseh used to employ a similar technique in the 200 fly and won a silver medal in Beijing doing it.

7 years ago

Did not Michael Phelps also entirely submerge at times during his landmark 200 freestyle races (Melbourne & Bejing)? I believe there is a similar rule for freestyle. I don’t mean to start an argument or insinuate anything, just sharing my thoughts.

Reply to  luigi
7 years ago

Just watched it (Beijing 200m freestyle final) on YouTube – looks like his feet remained above the surface at all times. That said, have a look at Vanderkaay during the first 50, he is definitely fully submerged at certain points of the length.

7 years ago

It looks a lot like open-water butterfly.

7 years ago

Ok, read everything. My thought is still a definite no. I used (and teach) this to an much smaller extent on the first 50 of the 200 fly, after which you decrease the glide/dive and increase tempo. My thought is that there is so much momentum the first 50 of the 200 fly that, along with the ATP-PC system, one can glide much more between strokes without losing much time at all. The effect of this is that the first 50 essentially takes care of itself with virtually no real strain on the body, meaning the race basically becomes a 150 fly. I think that the swimmer who can succeed in that race using the stroke shown for the entire… Read more »

Texas Flyer
Reply to  sven
7 years ago

Perhaps this is the beginning of a period where the swimmer elects to “shift gears” in a race such as the 200? As you said, a 200 becoming a 150 because the first 50 has been swam with this “longer recovery glide”. Could an experienced racer over the course of a 200 begin to up the tempo and shift into 5th gear and break into a sprint on his last length? What would those finishing times be like?
Could this start becoming more commonplace?
Rules do change.

Reply to  Texas Flyer
7 years ago

Well, my thought is that the most efficient way to swim a race is to even split the whole thing (accounting for the start, of course). So a well split race to me means that the difference between the first and second 50’s is less than 3 seconds, and that the second, third, and fourth 50’s are all fairly close to eachother. Holding the same pace will require different levels of effort/tempo at different stages in the race, so yeah, ideally (IMO) the swimmer will be going 5th gear at the end of it just to maintain the pace.

A lot of times, even at the elite level, the name of the game in the 200 fly is to die… Read more »

Texas Flyer
Reply to  sven
7 years ago

I completely agree.

I’m finding it interesting to watch the rate of “decay” of elite level swimmers on that 3rd and 4th length, especially as they’re coming home. Then, on the otherhand, we watch as Yuya comes (almost) “loping along” and grabs 2nd.
I guess I’m looking at it from the point of any other “muderous” races where we can literally see the change in tempo- like 400, 800, 1500 free, where it suddenly goes to ‘white water’ behind, picking up the recovery speed. In otherwords: conservation, strategy, now churn n’ burn for home, etc.

Granted the rules are as they are. Can you theorize why wasn’t this called out?

I practically get the feeling we might… Read more »

7 years ago

stop this video at 32 seconds and see Phelps completely submerged during freestyle:

stop video at 10 seconds to see Phelps completely submerged during fly:

7 years ago

Vaguely similar to Laszlo Cseh.

Swimmer A
7 years ago

For all the talk of that definitely being a DQ…. the dude didn’t get DQ’ed. Might be worth at least a mention here.

About Tony Carroll

Tony Carroll

The writer formerly known as "Troy Gennaro", better known as Tony Carroll, has been working with SwimSwam since April of 2013. Tony grew up in northern Indiana and started swimming in 2003 when his dad forced him to join the local swim team. Reluctantly, he joined on the condition that …

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