Sun Yang’s Historic Swim: Speed? Yes. Efficiency? Even More.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 1st, 2011

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.

21 Responses to “Sun Yang’s Historic Swim: Speed? Yes. Efficiency? Even More.”

  1. […] be temporary, limtied by physics, physiology, and/or injury). Need more convincing? Click here for Terry’s comment on the recent 1500 meter world record swim at the FINA 2011 Championships. Deeply imprinted stroke […]

  2. Saad says:

    Great post!

    Sun’s style is definitely TI-oriented and I was very impressed to see very light ‘kicks’ throughout the race up until the last 100M where he started to use some leg propulsion!

    Terry, how would you describe his flutter kick? the underwater video indicates that his kick pauses while he is catching a breath on the right side, what is the added value of the flutter kick since he is not even really kicking until the last 100M…

  3. Pablo Pérez says:

    Being good in technique is the way to excel in a world of sports where there is always somedoby faster, stronger, bigger…

    Regarding football (soccer for you fellow americans), FC Barcelona (Barça for us supporters) is beating up its rivals by being the best one can be in technique.
    The boys are trained in a special football school since they are young.
    All club teams, regadless of age, play within the same system.
    Once thay are in the first team (Spanish First Division), they are never the tallest, the strongest, the fastest… but they are the best.
    In Spain, in Europe, in the World…

  4. John says:

    Very interesting video. How would you describe Yang’s kick? In some of the underwater shots it looks like he kicks single beat strong with left foot, then a 3-beat finishing with right foot. In any event his stroke rate through the event looks notably lower than his rivals.

  5. John
    The best description, I think, is relaxed (until that searing final 50) and streamlined. These qualities are most evident as he comes off each wall. Study the underwater sections where he’s coming out of a turn. How little he kicks as he does is strong evidence of how impeccably balanced he is.

  6. Phoebe Brown-de Aragon says:

    Terry, my son and I have a small USA Swim Team in Charleston ,SC and we are always reading the information from your news letter looking for the latest technique. We had watched your information on open water swimming showing the technique that Sun Yang used in his swim just about 3 weeks earlier. My son took what he had seen from your information to the pool and we worked it until it became comfortable and consistent. Now, we are teaching it to some of our swimmers. I was on top of the world when I saw Sun Yang’s swim I called my son who was teaching a Lifeguard class and told him I just saw the swim of a lifetime and the techniques validates everything we have been doing and what Terry has been teaching. In 1996, my husband and I were at the OTC when you and Glen Mills made a presentation. I came home with your first TI video and began the work of changing my son’s stroke. I wrote you then it work’s and Sun Yang’s swim again validates that the TI technique works. It took USA swimming many years to use the term core body, efficient swimming in the same term as you do , lets see how long it takes them to realize that a long smooth swim is fast. We have taught one of our new swimmers to swim using TI and at 8 she ran a 36 high on her 50 free during long course. She turned 9 about 3 weeks ago. In practice we tell her it is all about staying long a smooth like a greyhound I used to have(smile) Keep up the good work. TI is awesome!! Phoebe in Charleston, SC

  7. Phoebe – Anything that can help change the grind-it-out culture of competitive swimming is invaluable work. Next time I pass through Charleston I’d love to visit with you.

  8. Phoebe Brown-de Aragon says:

    Anytime you’re in Charleston, we’d love to have you at one of our practices. Our lanes are always open to a TI master coach like yourself. Thank you! Phoebe.

  9. Donal says:

    Keep in mind, too, that Yang and Hackett are both 6′-6″ (1.98m), and use similar 4 beat kick timing so one can’t explain away Yang’s SL advantage as a result of being taller or kicking harder. IMO Hackett kicked a bit harder than Yang.

  10. Ken Halland says:

    Thanks Terry! I watched this live on Italian TV with my mouth hanging open. I was convinced that he had trained using TI techniques. Personally, i think his technique is not perfect: the uneven kick, and the ugly neck-twist during breathing; which only means that he (or someone else) can go even faster if fixed!

  11. Ken. It’s a core tenet of TI that we all will have Kaizen Opportunities in perpetuity. Simply by virtue of having Human DNA.

  12. Donal
    Good observations re Yang vs Hackett. I had the same interpretation and it took me back to Popov-Biondi. Both of them were also 6-6″ tall and thus Popov’s superior and concept-breaking efficiency had to be credited to something different in his practice, which I then went on to describe in the original TI book. I’m writing a new TI book and will certainly revisit this, pointing out why I see Yang’s example as even more important to adult swimmers who tend to be far more interested in lessons that apply to swimming 1500, than 50, meters.

  13. Count on it. PS: What’s the name of your club?

  14. Ruben Mijares says:

    The record is awesome. the 6’6” helps a lot. London 2012 is the big test….

  15. Phoebe Brown-de Aragon says:

    Terry, sorry for the long-overdue reply. Our team name is Los Leones Aquaticos (LLA). Happy Laps and Happy Thanksgiving! – Phoebe

  16. markjosephnunezocampo says:

    Amazing swim by Sun Yang! I’m from the Philippines and I just started swimming. Of course, I do know how to keep my head above water but TI has helped me a lot. Your videos on youtube are extremely helpful.

    Most of the commentary about breathing technique espouse bilateral breathing, but I noticed that Sun Yang would breath on the right after every 2 strokes. I also noticed that he sometimes broke the rhythm by catching an irregular breath on the left side. It would seem to me that he just breathed whenever he felt comfortable. It was just so natural. Would this kind of breathing rhythm be advisable for open water triathlon swimming? I’m more comfortable taking a breath whenever I do feel like it. Sun Yang’s technique just made me think that it would actually be good to do so.

  17. […] fallacy can often be seen in the writing of certain swim gurus who fetishize Sun Yang’s stroke […]

  18. Petri says:

    pretty relaxed and streamlined, but what I noticed was good early vertical forearm and strong pull. Can’t recall anything about that in TI book. Perhaps that’s in the videos? I man if this was supposed to look like TI swimming

  19. Tricia says:

    Terry, The internet has pages and pages of people debating whether Sun Yang is a TI swimmer. Some say he doesn’t glide enough to be a TI swimmer even. Since I am new to this and you are the expert, could you PLEASE clarify for me if Sun Yang is a TI style swimmer? Is he only partially?

  20. Tricia
    Sun Yang swims with a style which has obvious similarities to that which we teach–quite balanced, nicely streamlined, relaxed well-integrated kick, unhurried catch, little emphasis on power. However he is not TI-trained. He’s the most efficient swimmer by far among all those who swim his events. I think he could be even more efficient though. He often loses streamline fairly strikingly–though only briefly–while breathing. It would be a dream to have the opportunity to help him improve his breathing skill.

    I’ve seen little of the debates you speak of however.

  21. […] more convincing? Click here for Terry’s comment on Sun Yang’s 1500 meter world record swim at the FINA 2011 […]

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