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Ethan Wilson

Mrs. Wilson

English IV Honors

April 27, 2018

Competitive Swimming

Thesis: It is a constant battle to try and minimize the effects of obstacles as much as possible,

mainly using new technology in suit manufacturing, different designs of competition pools, and

techniques used by the swimmer in order to be as aerodynamic in the water as possible.

I. History of competition swimming

II. Obstacles and training for swimmers

III. Suit manufacturing

IV. Pool depth and design

V. Body drag in the water

VI. Factors that affect swimmers

VII. Other factors

VIII. Competitive swimmer techniques

A. Michael Phelps

B. Missy Franklin

C. Nathan Adrian

IX. Conclusion
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Ethan Wilson

Mrs. Wilson

English IV Honors

27 April 2018

Competitive Swimming

For a competitive swimmer, fast times mean about as much as winning the race. The

littlest things can affect times, like swimsuit drag, depth and width of the pool. Over the course

of its history as a competitive sport, swimmers have incorporated new techniques to improve

their times. It is a constant battle to try and minimize the effects of these obstacles as much as

possible, mainly using new technology in suit manufacturing, different designs of competition

pools, and techniques used by the swimmer in order to be as aerodynamic in the water as


Competitive swimming has been a sport for well over two centuries. With its earliest

origins date back to the early 1800s, Britain´s National Swimming Society aroused public

interest and resulted in the creation of the fastest swimming stroke, freestyle (¨History of

Swimming¨). Swimming was a sport in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, where there

were three competitions, the 100m, the 500m, and the 1200m. In the 1900 Olympics, the 4000 m

event was held, at the time this was the longest swimming event in history (¨History of

Swimming¨). Over the course of the next century, swimming would take its place in sporting

events all over the world, with women first swimming in the Olympics in 1912, and the first

person to swim 100m in under a minute in 1922, where the record of 51 seconds remained

unbroken for 17 years (¨History of Swimming¨). In 1972, Mark Spitz broke all swimming
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records at that years Olympic Games and won nine gold medals in the sport. Such a feat wasn't

accomplished again until American swimmer Michael Phelps, who currently holds 28 Olympic

medals, the highest number of anyone in the world (Michael Phelps). This shows that swimming

has been a sport and public interest for over 200 years.

What most people don't understand is that swimming is one of the hardest sports to do

and hardest to train for, as it works a person's upper and lower body, core muscles, and

breathing. On top of that there are dozens of techniques and sequences all swimmers must sear

into their mind, such as how many breaths to take before the swimmer do a flip turn at the wall,

remember how many strokes to take in-between the flags, or pace themselves for their energy

output in races. For long races, a swimmer would want to start out at a steady pace and go all out

at the end; for short races, they would want to go full speed from beginning to end. Training for a

swimmer is also very rigorous, as traditional training involves lengthy, high volume aerobic

workouts (Kinzer). Recently, a new form of training has caught on with most coaches. This form

involves highly specific, race-pace type workouts, but on very short intervals, in a ¨less is more¨

type of way (Kinzer). This prepares the swimmer for the race speed and stroke mechanics that

will be needed during a race. This new form of training has proved efficient, as most swimmers

who train like this prove to have better times than people who train in the older style. But some

trainers think that the ¨less is more¨ training is not worth it, claiming that it only works in

maintaining speed instead of building it, so it is hard to get faster (Kinzler). Though it has proven

that there is no main form of training for swimmers and that most will prove to be better in one

specific workout than the other in trial and error. When a person thinks that swimming is not

hard, they may think differently after swimming a practice for a few hours.
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However, there are also factors that most people wouldn't dream of thinking about, such

as swimsuit and body drag, pool depth, starting block design, and other little things. With

swimsuit drag, swimmers need to make sure the suit they are wearing produces as little drag as

possible. Even little things such as curves of body frame and shimmying muscles on the human

body while in the water can add to drag because they are not streamlined (Nasr). Different

materials or different brands of suits can make a large difference, as most suits are for practice

and in general, while there are some special suits for competitions that are designed to grip the

body as tight as possible for less drag. These suits also have an effect on stroke length in the

water, as it creates lower resistance and gives the swimmer longer glide phases and better

efficiency (Poirier-Leroy, ¨Tech Suits¨). Manufacturing for these suits also matters, as a new

way of making competitive suits is by welding rather than sewing sheets of woven spandex,

which is also considered a ¨flatter¨ material (Nasr). This does not make seams, which eliminates

a good potion of drag by 6%, and they are made from water rappelling material. Although, as the

suits are designed to be very tight on the swimmer's body, Speedo tested swimmers oxygen flow

while they are in the water to ensure that the new suits aren't so tight that the suits cut off

circulation or affect breathing rates. As a result, these tests proved that swimmers do breathe

normally while in the suit (Nasr). With these new fabrication techniques, having the right type of

competition suit could be the deciding factor in the race.

For pool depth, most average competition pools have a deep end on one side for the

blocks and a shallow end on the other side. This proves as being a problem as underwater waves

will bounce off the bottom of the shallow end and make the pool choppy, which will increase

drag and hinder speed (Madge). Most new pools have just one depth from one end to the other as

the waves that bounce off the bottom and off the walls will not be as strong than if they bounce
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off a shallow depth. The ideal depth for most Olympic sized pools is around 9.84 ft (3 m), as a

depth around 10 ft will give enough space to “kill waves” (“What Actually Makes a Pool

Fast?”). However, there can be a such thing as a pool being too deep. As a pool that has a depth

of 20 ft, the swimmer will begin to feel a concept known as motion parallel or “less fast”. This is

the illusion that if a swimmer is swimming in shallow water, the reference marks (lines) at the

bottom of the pool will make him feel like they are swimming “faster” than compared to a

deeper pool (“What Actually Makes a Pool Fast?”). Pool depth often matters when swimmers

train, so that they will be used to a certain depth when in a competition. The design of the pool

also matters very much for competition swimming. For most competition pools, the gutter

system that absorbs water when it sloshes out of the pool will usually be level with the surface,

though this does not get all the water and some of it will bounce of the wall. However, newer

pools are designing the gutters to sit below the waterline, as it will suck in all the water that is

sloshed out (Hoover). The bulkheads (sides of the pool) also matter when it comes to pool

design. The ideal material for the bulkheads are fiberglass, which helps with the swimmer´s flip

turns off the wall (Hoover). As a result, when it comes to the design and depth of a competition

pool, any type of advantage, whether big or small, will be accounted for in construction.

The body itself will produce drag when in the water, of which there are three types. They

are friction, pressure, and wave drag. Friction drag results as water molecules dragging against

the swimmer's body as they are moving, slowing forward motion. Pressure drag occurs when the

swimmer is moving fast through the water. It develops at the swimmers head, and the high

pressure works against the low pressure on the lower body. This causes the swimmer to

experience something like turbulence in the water (Crosswell). Wave drag is when waves are

created by the swimmer moving across the top of a body of water, which imbalances the pressure
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on the body and limits the swimmer's speed (Crosswell). Most swimmers can train to overcome

drag by either wearing regular swim trunks or special drag shorts over their competitive suits,

this produces even more drag for the swimmer so they will know how to overcome it when

swimming in a race. As well as wearing skin-tight swimsuits and swim caps, as hair on the head

and body can be a large producer of drag against the swimmer. Because there is no real way to

get rid of drag totally, these techniques will enable the swimmer to overcome it.

Though most obstacles that swimmers have to overcome are always considered, there are

dozens of smaller obstacles that if not told, most people would not believe it. One of these things

is the shape and make of the starting block. The starting block is a waist high platform slanted

slightly down towards the pool that swimmers dive off of at the beginning of the race. Most

earlier blocks were just raised cement slabs, these proved to be highly ineffective as swimmers

would consistently slip on them, which not only would affect time, but cause injury as well. The

next and most commonly used type of block is hard plastic with grooves cut into it, which

prevents most slipping. The block that is most commonly used in large competitions is virtually

the same type, but has an extended slant on the back for the swimmer's foot, so they can get an

extra push when jumping (Madge). Other effects that can hamper a swimmer´s time is water

temperature. Normally, most competition pools keep their temperatures cold, with most being

77*F (25*C), as the cold water helps propel the swimmer faster through the water. If the water is

too hot, it can sap energy and cause swimmers to overheat. But if the water is too cold it can

shock the swimmers and prevent muscles from working smoothly (Madge). Though, the warm

up and cool down pools that swimmers use are usually 82*F, as the warm water is key for

warming up muscles before races and cooling them down after (¨What Actually Make a Pool
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Fast?¨). These obstacles are often hard to overcome, but if they are worked correctly, they can

make the swimmer faster than they ever thought.

Other obstacles that the average person would never dream affects swimmers is

turbulence. There are two types of turbulence that the swimmer will encounter when in the

water, which are direct and reflected. Direct is turbulence created by the waves that swimmers

directly make. This is counteracted by the lane ropes, which not only act as dividers, but also to

absorb the waves so they dissipate, in fact, most of the ropes being made today are specifically

designed for this purpose (Madge). Lane Lines are usually spaced seven feet apart for swim

meets, in fact, the closer they are the better because the tighter space between them will give a

narrower passage for the swimmer so there won't be excess space, this gives a ¨torpedo¨ like

effect for the swimmer (Hoover). Reflected is waves that bounce off the bottom and sides of the

pool and hit the swimmer. These are more difficult to counteract as it has taken several pool

designs to find an effective method, which is attaching lane ropes directly beside the length of

the wall, as well as using surface level gutters too suck them in (Madge). Another type that that

is often overlooked is air quality. With most competition pools being indoor, the chemicals from

chlorine and heat from the building must be properly ventilated out. Pools that have bad air

quality can seriously affect a swimmer's breathing rate, as lungs are one of the most often

worked things in the body, which in turn can hamper their ability to move quickly through the

water (Madge). In fact, most people with asthma can't do competition swimming as bad air

quality in indoor pools could affect it and cause them severe problems unless they use an inhaler.

For a solution, most pools are investing in high powered ventilation systems to get the bad air

out. The Greensboro Aquatic Center, for example, uses Paddock Air Quality blower fans as its

main source of ventilation. With the fans usually being set to 40% on a normal day, 60-70% for a
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small swim meet, and 100% for a large swim meet (Hoover). With these problems, most athletes

would either limit their participation or stop altogether, but most will try to overcome these

obstacles to the best of their abilities.

With a seemingly unending amount of different techniques, it is often a struggle to find

the one that is best for the swimmers interest, as one that worked for another person probably

wouldn't work for another, so most try and come up with their own techniques. As with most

athletes today, the swimmers that participate in most high level events, including the Olympics,

have developed special techniques that they use for training and/or when in a race. Michael

Phelps for instance, who held the 200m freestyle world record until 2009, bases his technique for

his freestyle on getting the maximum distance per stroke, relaxing muscles as best as possible,

and maximizing the amount of water pulled per stroke (Poirier-Leroy, ¨Michael Phelps

Freestyle¨). But, this perfect form has not been without working with other possible techniques.

As Phelps chose to try more freestyle events for competitions, he experimented with the form

known as the Windmill Technique, which is recovering back into the water after taking a stroke

with a fully straight arm instead of bending it and bringing it back into the water a shorter

distance away from the athlete. Most swimmers will claim that it allows the athlete to enter the

propulsive portion of the stroke quicker and give them more explosive power as they can fully

engage their torso to whip their arms around themselves (Poirier-Leroy, ¨Michael Phelps

Freestyle¨). However, this technique was short lived for Phelps, as it is very hard for a swimmer

to hold this form for even short distance events, let alone long distance events, such as the 200m

or the 400m event that Phelps usually does. Even the best of the best have to go through a few

trial and error stages in order to get the perfect technique.

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Special techniques for swimmers are not something that only well experienced swimmers

can master, but for not as experienced swimmers as well. For younger competitive swimmer

Missy Franklin, winning a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics in the 100m backstroke comes from

using various techniques. She mainly relies on the natural physical advantage of long limbs and

strong shoulders to propel herself through the water, as well as broad hands and large feet.

(Pappas). The techniques that she uses that others might use is the lessons of fluid dynamics, as

experts say that studying these sciences is basically the exact same problem that an

aerodynamicist will use when studying the design of an airplane, so she mainly concentrates on

maximizing her thrust and minimizing her drag (Pappas). Despite the fact that she swims

different events than Phelps, she has developed her own system of techniques that benefit her.

Also, other swimmers who may not have as big a name as Phelps or Franklin, have a

series of techniques that that could make the difference between winning or losing a race. One of

those is swimmer Nathan Adrian, whose 4x100 freestyle relay team took home gold in the 2016

Olympics. Adrian emphasizes concentrating on breathing techniques through a race, as getting a

certain breathing pattern for a different stroke could be the deciding factor of the race. He uses a

¨one cycle system¨, which he takes a breath every two strokes he does, as well as not breathing

off the wall (¨Breathing Patterns for 5 Olympians¨). This is actually a popular technique among

most swimmers as it ensures the athletes get the maximum amount of distance per breath they

take. He also makes a technique of trying not to take any breaths during the 50m freestyle,

because taking lots of breaths during a race will make the swimmer slower than a person who is

taking very little breaths. Because the 50m event is a very short race, with most great swimmers

doing it in under 20 seconds, not taking a breath is very much a goal of most swimmers for short,

sprint events, as it takes much training to be able to do it (¨Breathing Patterns for 5 Olympians¨).
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Though these techniques work for Nathan Adrian, other swimmers like Michael Phelps and

Missy Franklin, may use certain other forms that work for them instead of using the exact same

one for every event.

Swimming has been a form of either entertainment or survival for easily as long as

humans have existed, with it coming into the system of world renowned sports in the last few

centuries. With many career swimmers smashing headlines and creating followers all over the

world, it seems to be an interesting sport to most people. However, these athletes who make the

headlines did not get to that place in the spotlight overnight. It takes countless hours of training

and sweat to get the amount of endurance and form that they have. With this training comes

several obstacles, some being a natural thought that comes to mind every time someone mentions

the sport, such as swimsuit and body drag, pool design, and how much training a person has done

in the water. However, others are obstacles that most people wouldn't ever consider would affect

swimmers, such as starting block design, pool temperature, air quality, and turbulence. With

these obstacles, comes new types of training and techniques a swimmer must relentlessly study

to perfect or make up themselves. As competitive swimming continues to amaze the world with

the incredible feats that its athletes produce, more problems will always surface for a participant.

However with it comes new techniques and solutions that will ensure the swimmer earns their

mark in the history of the sport.

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Suits.”, 16 Feb. 2018,

Trevallion , Deborah. “'Fast Suits' and Olympic Swimming: a Tale of Reduced Drag and Broken

Records.” The Conversation, 8 Mar. 2018,

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Goodgame, Clayton. “High-Tech Swimsuits: Winning Medals Too.” Time, Time Inc., 13 Aug.


Madge, Rick. “What Makes a Pool Fast?” Coach Rick - Mighty Tritons Swimming, 3 Feb. 2014,

Nasr, Susan L. “Can a Swimsuit Make You Swim Faster?” HowStuffWorks Science,

HowStuffWorks, 8 Mar. 2018,

“What Actually Makes a Pool Fast?” SwimSwam, 22 Dec. 2016,

Croswell, Jonathan. “How Drag Affects Swimmers.” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, 11 Sept.


“The History of Swimming.” Athletic Scholarships, 2018,

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Pappas, Stephanie. “Pool Power: How Olympian Missy Franklin Overcomes

Drag.”LiveScience, Purch, 2 Aug. 2012,

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Olympians.” SwimSwam, 6 Mar. 2015,

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