SINGAPORE — The human body was not designed for swimming. If it were, our bodies would look very different.
We would have hands and feet that were larger and possibly webbed, our bones and muscles would be less dense, and we might not even have these shoulders that have come to define our shape.
Yet, there are those among us who are better adapted to the water than the rest of us.
For years, scientists have analysed Michael Phelps’ body, and pointed to his unusually large upper torso and long wingspan for a man of his height as contributors to his success, while the media and his fans continued to call him “The Flying Fish” and “The Baltimore Bullet”.
So how did Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, who is 9cm shorter than Phelps, beat the man who was built to be a swimmer?
Competitive swimming as a sport is relatively easy to understand: The fastest man or woman in the pool wins. But how that swimmer becomes the fastest is much harder to understand.
Until early last decade, the competitive swimming community looked for athletes with the same physical qualities as the top swimmers of the day, according to Tiago M Barbosa, assistant professor at the physical education and sports science academic group at the National Institute of Education.
“From the 1980s until the early 2000s, that was the assumption. If the best in the world had large hands and feet, (they looked out) for people with these features,” said Tiago.
But with greater understanding of fluid dynamics and biomechanics — or how the body can move efficiently through water — sports scientists have found that, while these physical traits provide a strong advantage, there are other ways in which an athlete can improve how he or she performs in the pool.
In an Olympic final, where the difference between first and last place is calculated in milliseconds, running race analyses can help athletes figure out where their advantages lie, and where they can be more efficient — that is, how to move through water with less resistance and therefore use less energy.
“In the end, a race is far more than step on a block, jump and swim as fast as possible,” said Tiago.
“A swim race is more like choreography.
“Our job as sports analysts is to understand what is the best choreography for any given swimmer.”
During the Olympics in Rio this year, Schooling worked with Ryan Hodierne, a sport biomechanist at the Sports Science Centre at Singapore Sports Institute, and who previously worked with Chad le Clos in South Africa.
Hodierne, who Schooling calls “the best I have seen in biomechanics”, painstakingly went through hours of race footage, comparing Schooling’s performance to his competitors’ — including and especially Phelps. He broke down each race, looking at start performances, reaction times off the block, swim speed, the approach to a turn, and the final swim to the finish.
That was when Hodierne found that Schooling was consistently the fastest swimmer in the first half of his race, whereas his competitors tended to catch up in the second half.
Physically, Schooling also has the advantage of a strong kick, despite his smaller body. He is 1.84m, 9cm shorter than Phelps (1.93m).
“There certainly is an advantage in having long limbs, and Phelps has spent so much time under water that he is almost an amphibian,” said Hodierne. “(And) Joseph is shorter than the majority of the guys in the pool.”
“Joseph presents with an unconventional stroke and kick rhythm for his butterfly. The coached and tailored timing of his two kicks within one stroke cycle allows him the efficiency and power to progress through the water at speeds similar or faster than his rivals in this particular 100m butterfly event.
“He makes the most of everything else he has to propel himself forward, to negate his shorter length in the pool.”
Speaking to Schooling only hours before the now legendary 100m butterfly final in Rio, Hodierne told the 21-year-old swimmer where he could make his swim more efficient, so he would not only lead early in the race, but also continue to stay ahead.
He gave Schooling a target race time of 23.60s for the first 50m — which he missed by only 0.04s (23.64s) — that would allow him to dominate the first half of the race, without exhausting himself for the second.
Hodierne also suggested to Schooling that he could put his head down as he approached the wall, so his swim velocity would increase without interruption, which the swimmer eventually pulled off.
And Schooling did just that.
“To me, that level of understanding is a little bit scary for an athlete of his age. I didn’t think it was possible,” said Hodierne, referring to Schooling’s ability to comprehend the data presented to him and translate that into action in the pool, even under high pressure.
“His level of understanding was far superior to what I had thought would be the case for someone of his age and of his natural ability.
“He can get in there and crush it out and beat the world’s best swimmers.”
However, Hodierne’s biggest contribution, perhaps, was in showing Schooling that, given his strengths and how he had been performing, victory was at the very least in sight.
“It became a mind game,” said Sonya Porter, technical director at Singapore Swimming Association. “It was about him even at that point understanding that these guys were now chasing him.
“He was no longer chasing them. Their numbers didn’t even match up to his in any context, from anything they had even done in the past. That became a turning point that, all right, now I do my own race.”
It was something Schooling himself was keenly aware of.
“I didn’t really try in the semis and I was ahead by half a second, so it’s like if I don’t psych myself up, this is my race to lose,” he said.
“I wasn’t really set on winning, but I told myself, if I could gather myself together and put together a decent race … I’d win.”
Schooling will be spending the coming months working on his next target: Breaking the world record for the 100m butterfly.
new record without suits
Even though that record was set by Michael Phelps in 2009 in a super suit, which is now banned, Hodierne is confident Schooling can surpass what Phelps achieved.
“During that whole period when the suits (were popular), the mechanics of swimming were slightly different. Those suits were aiding buoyancy, and the athletes weren’t that focused on actual mechanics or the technique of swimming,” said Hodierne.
“In recent years, now that the suit has gone out of the equation, athletes look a lot leaner, and you see a lot of smaller athletes producing on the world stage. The focus has changed a lot more to technical prowess as opposed to physical prowess.
“I think for Joseph now the focus can be looking at his stroke to see how we can manipulate different elements to make him even faster in the pool.”
And, if anything, Schooling’s win will prove to competitive swimmers here that with hard work, perseverance and a strong, competent team behind you, anything is possible.
“There have been some great swimmers in the past from Singapore and there have been things that have got in their way of making that trajectory to that level of success,” said Porter.
“Joseph’s smart. He has applied himself as hard as he would have here, but he can balance it more in the (American) system he is in.
“It’s trying to get Singapore to see that when we have athletes who are inspiring at that level, there is a level of balance that needs to come into place, because you don’t get to that level if you don’t apply as equally to your sport as you do to your academics.”
Hodierne said: “I foresee a very bright future for Singaporean swimming at this stage. We definitely are heading in the right direction, and I think this is a wave that Singapore sport needs to ride on.
“Realising this is possible requires hard work and years of dedication, but it’s in people’s reach.”