In 2002 I wrote the following, describing what was most significant about Alexandre Popov’s first Olympic gold medal ten years earlier. This passage appears on pps 58-59 of the revised version of my original Total Immersion book:
From 1988 to 1992 the American swimmer Matt Biondi had a hammerlock on the title “World’s Fastest Swimmer.” Biondi was undefeated in the sprint freestyles and was more efficient than any of his rivals.
For several years Alexander Popov’s coach had studied Biondi’s stroke, using it as a model for his rising star. In the final of the 50-meter freestyle in the 1992 Olympics, Popov touched first in 21.8 seconds, Biondi right behind in 22.0 seconds. What most amazed analysts was that Popov had not only beaten Biondi by a comfortable margin, he had beaten him thoroughly at Biondi’s longest suit–stroke efficiency. Popov had taken 34 strokes, Biondi 37. The time gap may have been just 1 percent, but the three-stroke difference, an efficiency gap of nearly 10 percent between the world’s two best sprinters was nearly inconceivable.
It was just the beginning of a new efficiency standard. For an unheard of 10 years afterward, Popov continued to dominate the sprint events, raising the bar again and again for efficiency and speed.
Had Popov simply swum as others did, moving briskly up and down the pool every day–working out–it might never have happened. He would have developed less efficient stroke habits and been just another swimmer in the pack–albeit a very good pack. Instead he was trained to practice precise technique until it became an utter habit.
In breaking Grant Hackett’s 1500-meter World Record on July 31 the Chinese swimmer (coached at times by Hackett’s former coach Denis Cotterell in Australia) Sun Yang held 27 SPL for 1250 meters, took 28 SPL for the next 200m and 32 SPL on his final 50. His average of under 28 SPL demolished what had seemed a nearly untouchable efficiency standard Grant Hackett had set when he averaged 31 SPL in setting the former record. Sun’s swim was even more of a landmark accomplishment than Popov’s in 1992, because he improved on Hackett’s efficiency benchmark by nearly 13 percent.
Will this lead to wider acknowledgement that stroke efficiency is the key to speed–whether the event is short or long? Possibly even a validation of TI methodology? (We would never presume to claim Sun as a “TI Swimmer” but his stroke is an absolute textbook example of TI technique.) There will always be skeptics, but if he maintains or raises his standard at the 2012 Olympics there should be little argument.
Teach Yourself Sun Yang’s technique with the TI DVD Self Coached Workshop: Perpetual Motion Freestyle in 10 Lessons.