The New Rule That Could Sink Michael Phelps

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At this year's Olympics, a once-illegal technique might give Ryan Lochte the edge over his record-breaking teammate.

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Reuters

Four years ago, at the Beijing games, swimming found its biggest audience ever. According to Nielsen estimates, 4.7 billion people caught Olympics swimming coverage, which, every 30 seconds or so, cut to footage of phenom Michael Phelps, the man with the Midas touch, in or around the water cube. In America alone, 107 million watched the 4x100 freestyle relay. By comparison, 97 million tuned in to Super Bowl XLII. Not bad for a second-tier country club sport, long relegated to amateur status, a sport that, for all but ten days each Olympic cycle, fades into cultural obscurity (except, of course, in Australia).

The obvious credit goes to the Baltimore Bullet. Take away his historic medal haul and it seems doubtful that so many would have been so riveted by a form of locomotion evolution has deemed so obsolete. Still, as if to prove the rains-pours theory, Beijing brought other once-in-a-generation storylines: Eric Shanteau competing with cancer, Dara Torres medaling at the age of 41, and of course, the freakishly high tally of world records, brought on by bodysuits that have since been banned. With so many sub-plots to follow it's no surprise that a small technical development—a subtle flick of the feet called the Kitajima Kick—slipped under the radar. What is remarkable, however, is just how much this technique reduces drag and increases a swimmer's speed. In a sport where hundredths of a second separate first from fifth, the Kitajima Kick could decide the final bout between the best swimmer in the world and the best swimmer in history.

IF YOU HAVEN'T HEARD of the rivalry between Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, then you should know that Lochte-Phelps is to swimming as Bird-Magic was to basketball, minus the ire. Which is to say that rivalry is a hyperbolic designation, since Phelps and Lochte are teammates. Despite personality differences (Phelps is guarded, Lochte is loose; Phelps favors golf in his downtime, Lochte takes to the longboard, Phelps exudes East coast intensity, Lochte, Florida punk) they share plenty in common. Both were born in the mid-'80s, both spent their childhoods in the pool, both were blessed with a powerhouse kick, both have matured into GQ gods, both favor the individual medley events, both own numerous world records, both are nearing the end of their biological competition clocks, and both stand to win multiple events in London. All of this translates to bankable hoopla. If Beijing was the biggest thing that ever happened to swimming, then London, thanks to Lochte-Phelps, might be a close second.

That the storyline even exists is an unexpected boon. Parity between the two men—a key component of any good rivalry—has only come recently. Lochte was not a household name after Athens, where Phelps won six golds, or Beijing, where Phelps won eight golds. Lochte performed well both times, garnering every color in the hardware spectrum, but he still had to contend with the fact that every time he met Phelps, he came up short. That changed last summer at the World Championships in Shanghai. Lochte nabbed five individual titles, two of them over the man who would not be beaten. How did he do it? Fueled by the sizable chip on his shoulder, Lochte benefited from his devotion to detail.

The technique that put him over the top emerged nearly a decade ago. All-weather fans may recall the controversy surrounding a more contentious rivalry: Brendan Hansen and Kosuke Kitajima. Both breaststroke specialists, they squared off for the first time in 2003, at Worlds in Barcelona. Hansen, a mellow Philadelphian with surfer curls and a battering ram for a body, was the pre-meet favorite in the 100- meter breast. He held international titles in the event, along with a mental edge: a 14-time NCAA champion for the University of Texas at Austin, he had never lost a collegiate race.

Kitajima, on the other hand, was a wild card, unheralded outside of his native Japan. Scrawnier than most elite swimmers, he compensated with a wicked whip kick and textbook turns. Throw in a cutthroat competitive drive, and Kitajima took the Piscines Bernat Picornell by storm. He beat Hansen by half a second, becoming just the second man to break a minute in the 100 breast. Three days later, in the 200, he put two body lengths on the field en route to a world record. Kitajima's message, in keeping with his impish celebratory screams, was emphatic: move over Hansen, there's a new Frog King (Kitajima's actual nickname) in town.

At least, for a little while. The following summer, Hansen one-upped his rival by posting a pair of world records at the U.S. Olympic trials. He rode into Athens on a wave of confidence and logged the top qualifying time in the semifinals of the 100 breast. But seconds into the final, something curious happened. As Hansen completed his pullout, Kitajima surged ahead with a rogue dolphin kick. It was at this moment that technique sticklers reached for their rulebooks.

As the swimmers glide off the wall, note how Kitajima, in the foreground, snaps his feet as he initiates the pullout. Bubbles trailing off his toes show the propulsion he generates. Hansen, on the other hand, keeps his knees locked.

The maneuver in question had long been outlawed, a stipulation meant to distinguish the breaststroke, kinetically, from the butterfly. Depending on whom you ask, the Kitajima Kick gives an unfair advantage—anywhere from a third to a half of a second per turn. That night, when Hansen hit the touch pad a tenth behind his rival, Kitajima should have been disqualified. Yet while the gaffe was obvious on underwater footage, officials saw differently. Or rather, they didn't see at all. If you've ever stood poolside—especially outdoors, especially at night, especially with floodlights casting a sheen on the water—you know how challenging it can be to detect activity beneath the surface, even when you're looking for it.

In such conditions, without the safety valve that is video replay, a real-time judgment whiff might be forgiven. Less forgivable is the loophole that rewarded breaststrokers for wile. As elite swimmers were well aware, you were just as likely to get away with a deliberate dolphin kick as you were to get disqualified for an accidental one. More often than not, the Kitajima Kick was unpoliceable.

Soon afterward, the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) fumbled to the same conclusion. Consider FINA's updated pullout clause, revised in September of 2005:

SW 7.1 After the start and after each turn, the swimmer may take one arm stroke completely back to the legs during which the swimmer may be submerged. A single butterfly kick is permitted during the first arm stroke, followed by a breaststroke kick.

On forums such as Lane 9 News, purists were quick to protest the second sentence, which effectively legalized the Kitajima Kick. The change, so the argument went, devolved the stroke. Even worse, it was an attempt to save face, to validate an officiating error. Yet FINA defended its decision with an unexpected justification, one that had nothing to do with enforcement. A lone dolphin kick, as the federation noted during its annual technical congress, followed the "body's natural movement" off the wall. In other words, it was inefficient for a swimmer to suppress their feet during the pullout. Too little too late for Hansen, but at the very least, the playing field had been leveled.

Over the next four years, breaststrokers tinkered with the ruling. Some, like Greece's Romanos Alyfantis, took it to the extreme, slipping illegal dolphin action into every kick. Others stuck with Kitajima's blueprint, combining the dolphin kick with the pullout for an explosive dipping motion.

In this demonstration, a swimmer shows off the Kitajima Kick. His dolphin kick and pullout occur at the same time, followed by a breaststroke kick. Pay particular attention to his movement in the vertical plane.

Hansen put this version on display when he swept breaststroke gold at Worlds in Quebec (2005) and again in Melbourne (2007). But by the time Beijing rolled around, it was Kitajima himself who figured out how best to execute his brainchild. Rather than performing the pullout and kick simultaneously (Dolphin Kick+Pullout, Breaststroke Kick), he opted instead to snap his feet a millisecond before the pull (Dolphin Kick, Pullout, Breaststroke Kick).

Kitajiama's revision means less vertical movement. Rather than performing the dolphin kick and the pullout simultaneously, he spaces them apart.

While the Kitajima Kick 2.0 was less powerful, it made for a straighter body line, better conserving momentum and energy. Though there is still some disagreement over which version of the Kitajima Kick works better, it's telling that many elites have now adopted the 2.0 , including the premier female breaststroker, Rebecca Soni.

SO WHAT DOES THIS have to do with Lochte-Phelps? A fair question, since neither are particularly strong at the breast. (At least, on the international stage. Both could compete for a top ten spot at U.S. Nationals.) But the stroke plays a crucial role in what both consider their signature event—the 400 Meter Individual Medley (I.M.)

Often compared to the decathlon, the 400 I.M. requires speed, endurance, and a firm command of all four strokes. As the third of four legs, the breaststroke poses a pacing conundrum. Give too much and you won't have anything left for the freestyle. Hold back and you won't establish your rhythm. Complicating matters is the fatigue that accompanies the three quarter point in almost any race—too late for adrenaline, too early for last gasp. Hence, the axiom preached by many a developmental coach: You might not win on the breaststroke leg, but you can certainly lose.

Back at the 2004 Olympic Trials, the first big meet where Lochte and Phelps dueled, Phelps built on his lead in the breast, cruising to victory. Lochte finished fourth, almost ten seconds back. Four years later, after Lochte rewrote the NCAA record books, he returned to trials with soft-spoken swagger. As Phelps embarked upon his Herculean quest, Lochte qualified in three individual events, as well as the 4x200 freestyle relay. His most impressive performance came in the 400 I.M. Though Phelps would win the race, Lochte hung on his hip the whole way, finishing less than a second behind an inarguably superior talent. As announcers mooned over Phelps, Lochte, who, when interviewed, seems genuinely awestruck by every word that comes out of his mouth, must have bristled at his lot: He seemed destined for a career as second fiddle.

Most of us know about Phelps' encore in Beijing. We know how he prevailed every time he hit the water. We know how Lezak saved his Spitzian mission and how he edged Serbia's Milorad Cavic to claim his penultimate, and most improbable, gold. Yet few realize how well Lochte performed. He took bronze behind Phelps in both medley races, along with a surprise victory in the 200 meter backstroke, upsetting defending champion Aaron Piersol. The icing on the cake? He set a new world record.

At 23, with an Olympic title to his credit, Lochte had reached a competitive pinnacle, which, in all likelihood, would not be regained. After all, swimmers rarely excel in their late 20s, and motivation can be hard to come by when the best Olympian ever shows up beside you at every meaningful meet. All things considered, Beijing would have made a fine swan song. But Lochte had other plans in mind.

Much has been made of the masochistic training program Lochte developed in the last four years. Video clips show him flipping monster truck tires in Gainesville heat, dragging rusted shipping chains, puking in the gutter, and other Rocky-esque feats. This unorthodox preparation, not to mention drastic dietary changes, has undoubtedly elevated his game. But if you watched closely at last month's Trials in Omaha, you may have noticed how he shot ahead at the midway turn of the 400 I.M., an advantage he maintained into the finish. The reason? Following in the footsteps of Kitajima, Lochte went for efficiency over power.

Now granted, there are times when a swimmer hits the wall just right. But even North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Bob Bowman, who has guided Phelps' swimming career from its infancy, noted after the race that his star protégé got beaten on the turns. An ironic shift, especially considering that for the last decade, it has been Phelps, king of underwater undulation, who has owned the technical edge.

Heading into London, it would be pointless to pick a winner. Because Lochte and Phelps hate to lose, because they hate to win in a slower-than-expected time, they always bring out the best in each other. And while they only go head-to-head in two races—the 200 individual medley and the 400 individual medley—both contests could come down to tenths, possibly hundredths of seconds. With such slim margins, it may well be that something as small as a hydro-dynamical difference of opinion distinguishes gold from silver. It just goes to show that in swimming, that sleek and strenuous art form, ability matters, but maybe not as much as innovation.

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Edward Helfers teaches writing at the University of Maryland. His fiction and criticism have appeared in JERRY Magazine and Web Conjunctions. He swam for Duke University.

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