The one thing Rowdy Gaines will not do during Saturday’s swim clinic at Georgetown Prep:
Teach anyone to swim the way he learned to swim.
Almost every technical element of his gold-medal victory in the Olympic 100-meter freestyle at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles now makes him cringe. The style is not merely out-moded, but flat-out wrong.
“I don’t look like Michael Phelps,” Gaines said. “It looks like I’m stuck in some sort of time warp.”
In fairness, Gaines admits, his stroke showed some accidental refinement. His extremely relaxed turnover would be a model for any era, he figures. And he somehow managed a nice hip turn despite never hearing the word “core” in relation to anything other than apples throughout his career.
But for the most part, Gaines, 50, had to un-learn everything he knew about technique for two reasons: So he could properly teach the youngsters he now encounters through frequent swim clinics, and so he had half a chance of staging a successful masters swimming career.
Both are priorities. The first, because he wants to give back the sport that has given him a long and fulfilling career, first as an Olympian, then as a television commentator.
And the second, because he still hates to lose, whether to fellow 50-year-olds or the teens that will test him at the conclusion of his clinics.
The masters career is going extraordinarily well; Gaines set three short-course U.S. Masters Swimming records (in 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle) in May at the short-course national championships in Fresno, Calif. And Gaines’s swim clinics, which also offer every kid in attendance the chance to race him in a 25-yard pool, are always favorites. On Saturday at the Potomac Valley Swimposium, he will appear along with Olympian Kate Ziegler and former world-record holder Randall Bal.
“For me as an old man, being able to hang with Kate and Randall and people like that, I learn a lot from them,” Gaines said.
Gaines, Ziegler and Bal will give the type of instruction Gaines never heard as a child. For example, in Gaines’s day, swimmers were taught to keep their head up with the forehead poking out of the water like some sort of periscope. Now, a swimmer is taught to keep the head in line with the rest of the body, looking down, seeking the feeling of swimming downhill.
The theory makes so much sense — as the head sinks, the lower body goes up and the body achieves a better streamline — that Gaines can hardly stand watching himself on old video, eyes seeking out the wall.
“My head position is really ugly, really stupid,” Gaines said. “It’s almost like we were showing off.”
And Gaines, who attended Auburn University and trained under the late Richard Quick, distinctly recalled swimming with his arms and legs. He never thought about any other body part; the arms pulled the water and the legs provided the kick. Simple. And incorrect.
“”When I swam, it was arms and legs, baby, just get your arms and legs going as fast as is possible,” he said.
Now, you have to understand the mechanics of the perfect golf swing or a professional baseball player’s pitching motion to comprehend how to move fast and efficiently through the water. It’s all about hip rotation and core strength — two items that did not enter Gaines’s swimming vocabulary until long after he retired. These days, Gaines teaches what nobody ever told him, that the arms and legs will follow the body, and the body’s rotation is the biggest factor.
Gaines also laughs when he thinks back to what he constantly heard from coaches on the pool deck, the oft-repeated “follow-through with your stroke.” They wanted swimmers pulling the water until the bitter end, yanking it all the way past the hip. The problem with that? By the time you’re moving your hand up and out, Gaines said, you are carrying the water up and out, too. When you do that, the hips drop, and you lose your critical streamline.
So what does Gaines teach about a follow-through nowadays?
There is no follow-through. Watch Michael Phelps. Watch the great swimmers. They flare their hands away from the body, Gaines said, when the hands reach the hips.
“The rear quadrant [of swimming] is now gone,” Gaines said. “It’s gone by the wayside … You want to have a long stroke in front of you, not behind you.”
The most comical aspect of the old videos is how slowly Gaines and his contemporaries came off the wall, popping quickly out of the water and commencing a flutter-kick immediately. The dolphin kick, Gaines said, represents one of the most important advancements, and it’s also one of the most difficult for him as a masters swimmer.
His body hasn’t quite figured out how transition from the dolphin kick to the flutter-kick, he said. It’s a coordination issue that he compares to how an adult feels straining to learn a new language.
There is one increasingly popular piece of modern technique Gaines is reluctant to teach to youngsters: the straight-arm freestyle, which Phelps experimented with this summer, and then ditched.
Though it’s been performed with great success by Frenchmen Alain Bernard, Fred Bousquet and a few others, Gaines offers kids a very specific litmus test to determine their readiness for the stroke.
“How many kids here can bench-press 300 pounds,” he will ask during these Mutual of Omaha BREAKout Swim Clinics.
The question nearly always elicits silence.
“If you do, you can come back and see me,” Gaines will say. ‘The stroke is not for the faint of heart. You have to be very, very strong.”
Needless to say, Gaines doesn’t meet his own qualifications to do the stroke.
Not yet, anyway.
Give him at least another year.
Tags: Michael Phelps