Disdain is Name Of The Rule-Change Game

Christian Sprenger (Courtesy: Swimming Australia)
Christian Sprenger (Courtesy: Swimming Australia)

Updated With Comment from Breeja Larson

By the time the World Championships in Barcelona are over, the state of the breaststroke could be altered forever. This summer, FINA will decide on a rule-change proposal to the breaststroke which would allow unlimited dolphin kicks to the 15-meter mark. Currently, athletes are allowed one dolphin kick off the start and each turn.

Of course, we know the single-dolphin kick rule has been frequently violated, with swimmers trying to get the better of their opposition with an additional dolphin kick … or two, three or four. After winning the Olympic gold medal in the 100 breaststroke at the 2012 London Games, South African Cameron van der Burgh admitted to using additional dolphin kicks.

A few problems have arisen in the event in recent years. For one, underwater video cameras have not been adopted, which would enable officials to call violations, particularly at the start – where the current rule debate is focused on. Second, officials have either been hesitant to call a disqualification, or haven’t been able to see the violations from the deck. More, swimmers have felt so much pressure to not lose ground to the field, they have felt it necessary to perform multiple butterfly kicks, even if it is against the rules.

Now, FINA could be on the verge of allowing as many dolphin kicks as an athlete wishes in order to eliminate the problems which have arisen. A move in this direction would change the stroke forever, basically wiping out the way breaststroke has been performed for years. Really, it would be like a return to the butterfly/breaststroke hybrid of earlier days.

In recent days, SwimVortex has reached out to several breaststrokers – current and former – and coaches to gauge their feelings on the potential change to unlimited dolphin kicks. Needless to say, the response has been one-sided, a sincere disdain emerging for a move toward unlimited kicks. This type of change is unwanted and unwelcome, and a common theme has emerged: Breaststroke will not be breaststroke any longer.

How will this whole saga shake out? Well, we won’t know that answer for a few more months. In the meantime, here’s a look at what some big names had to say about the proposed change.

At the 2012 Olympics, Australia’s Christian Sprenger won the silver medal in the 100 breaststroke, thanks to a time of 58.93. He was left nearly a half-second in the wake of van der Burgh, who set a world record and admitted to using numerous dolphin kicks en route to victory. Sprenger has been outspoken about the proposed rule change and had this comment for SwimVortex.

“I think it will destroy the event to be honest,” Sprenger said. “It would seem that because athletes are performing the illegal kicks, FINA (is) going to just make it legal. On that basis, I guess if enough people took performance enhancing drugs, maybe FINA (would) make that legal too. There is a clear and easy option. Underwater cameras! That will be the only way to preserve the authenticity of breaststroke. If the fly kicks come in, it will be a very disappointing day for the history of swimming.”

There might not be a person in the world who despises the dolphin kick in breaststroke more than American Brendan Hansen, the six-time Olympic medalist and former world-record holder in both breaststroke events. At the 2004 Olympics, when dolphin-kicking was completely illegal, Hansen won the silver medal in the 100 breaststroke, in part because gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima of Japan used dolphin kicks off the start and turn.

Video footage of the final in Athens showed Kitajima’s illegal maneuvers, which either avoided the eyes of officials or were ignored. Kitajima’s situation ignited a firestorm as Hansen’s teammate, Aaron Peirsol, accused the Japanese star of cheating. The controversy was largely responsible for a rule change by FINA in 2005 which allowed single dolphin kicks off the start and turn.

“Don’t change the rule because the officials are afraid to make a call,” Hansen said. “Get new officials! The stroke I loved will never be the same.”

From a coaching perspective, Eric Hansen works with two of the best breaststrokers in the world. In Kevin Cordes, he is developing a future star and the man many expect to carry the banner which Brendan Hansen so admirably carried for years. At the NCAA Championships in March, Cordes shattered records in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, and his breakthrough in the long-course scene is expected this summer. Meanwhile, Hansen also guides the career of Clark Burckle, a finalist in the 200 breast at the London Games.

“Just curious if our sport is one of the first to adapt to people cheating?” Hansen asked. “(It) boggles my mind.”

Also jumping in on the topic was Kristy Kowal, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist in the 200 breaststroke and former American-record holder in the event. Kowal now teaches, gives clinics around the country and serves as an assistant coach at the high school level. For her, a major change in the dynamic of the event would be tough to take.

“I think that allowing unlimited breaststroke kicks to the 15-meter or yard mark is a terrible idea,” Kowal said. “It would affect the short-course races more so than long course. The majority of a short-course race would no longer be raced in the stroke of breaststroke anymore. Over half of the race could be spent underwater. This would take away any advantage that a swimmer with true breaststroke talent and good technique has and turn it over to a swimmer who excels underwater. I feel this is going to take mediocre breaststroke swimmers who have good dolphin kicks and turn them into exceptional breaststroke swimmers without them having to actually work on the actual stroke of breaststroke.

 

“Breaststrokers are good at the stroke of breaststroke. Sure, that ONE dolphin kick is an extra added bonus to an underwater pullout. However, not all breaststrokers are great at underwater dolphin kicking. It was always my belief that dolphin kicks had no place in breaststroke in the first place. If we are going to start changing rules to strokes, why don’t we let a breaststroke kick back into the butterfly stroke? That would have helped me out.”

A 2012 Olympian and NCAA champion at Texas A&M, Breeja Larson has elevated herself into the upper echelon of breaststrokers. She was the champion at the United States Olympic Trials last summer and figures to play a major role in the hunt for medals at the upcoming World Championships. She, too, is not a fan of the proposed changes to the breaststroke.

“I don’t think they should change anything about breaststroke,” Larson said. “I think it would be shameful for the sport. Records would get shattered. We should focus on how the stroke is now and not cater to those who cheated. Everyone trains really hard to get to their highest competition every year and I feel it’s wrong to change the race so drastically. If they choose to put in as many dolphin kicks as you want, that might end up making the breaststroke pullout useless, which is one of the parts of the race that make it so different and beautiful.”

As other swimmers and coaches lend their viewpoints, we’ll be sure to share their thoughts on the issue. We’ll also continue to monitor the developments in this situation leading up to the World Championships in Barcelona and what will surely be an interesting decision by FINA concerning the future of the breaststroke.

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