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?