Feeling the water

Jeepers, I’m glad that’s over, to be honest. How exhausting! Settling in at 9.30pm—rowing bedtime!—for 3 or 4 hours of the nightly Olympic row-fest. It just wasn’t sustainable.

Still, I gave it my Damir-Martin best and I’m happy that I left it all out there, on the couch.

Even in the car, there was no escape. On the pre-dawn trip to the lake on Saturday, still high on high-performance sport and only 4 hours’ sleep, I half-listened to the voices on the radio—Aussie swimming legends talking about winning and breaking records and—well, this is interesting!—feeling the water.

Oars make it a little harder, but does swimming have some parallels with rowing?

Here’s Shane Gould on what makes a good swimmer:

“I think I can pick up information from the water, you know on my skin: the pressures, the flows. You know, there’s an interaction.

“So, for example, if you put a ball in the water, you push it down it will pop up; you let it go and it will pop up; there’s a bounce in the water. So it’s free energy. So if you can use that: I’m going to press myself into the water and then arrange the tissues in my body in a certain quality of energy and the water will sort of respond and lift me.

“But if I try to impose myself on the water and use land-based strategies rather than working with the rhythm of the water, I’m going to override that free energy. So it’s an interactive relationship.

“And the really good swimmers relate to the water and find ways of making minute adjustments, you know, and it’s just so sensory.”

Shane Gould was 15 when she competed at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, winning 5 medals, including 3 gold. I wonder how much of this she understood back then.

She later discovered that a whole generation of East German and Russian swimmers had been taught to emulate her stroke, including, to her surprise, her ‘sticking up’ thumbs.

15-year-old Shane Gould won 5 medals (3 gold) at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Copyright IOC 


Rising to the surface

Dawn Fraser describes the feeling of being over the water (yep, that’s definitely where we want to be):

“It starts off… the first of the season is that you get in the pool and you feel like a lump of lead. Then as you train harder and do a certain amount of work, you start rising to the surface. And, all of a sudden you’re feeling the water. Your fingertips are feeling the water, you’re getting power in your hands.

“And for many years we practised putting thumb in the water first, little finger in the water first. I got the better feeling placing my little finger in the water first; that gave me strength and feeling of the water so I could pull this body through.”

Eyes in the boat now:

“And the heaviest part of your body is your head, so you had to sort of balance where you could keep your head, and I think I perfected that when I swam. But it took a lot of training. It took a lot of training from your coach to place your head, and to have your balance in the water.

“Once you get that, once you start rising to the top of the water, it’s as though you’re skimming over the top of the water. The water’s no hassle at all. But the start of the season, it’s horrible. But you get over that.

“And once you get that into your mind, that it’s only going to take a month to get over that, and you start feeling over the water, that’s when you start feeling fit, and the water just fades away from you. It’s a beautiful feeling. It’s a lovely beautiful feeling.”

Science versus feel

These days, every aspect of a swimmer’s performance (perhaps even their media skills) is measured and monitored and analysed.

Ellie Cole will be swimming at Rio in her third Paralympics:

“We dive off the block and they measure basically everything that you can measure in swimming in terms of velocity and reaction times of our starts, the pressure you press off the blocks with and things like that.  And how big the hole is that you make when you enter the water and we also look at underwater kicking and things like that.”

Shane Gould isn’t buying it:

“I think the sports scientists have taken over and it’s all measured in numbers and graphs and charts and angles. And yet the swimmer, when they give feedback to the coach they’ll say, oh that felt really good.”

What is ‘boat feel’?

Carol Dinares says you need to get in a crew boat with a good rower(s) to find out:

“Good boat feel is too complex to be explained and needs to be experienced.”

You can also read other (anonymous) people’s descriptions of ‘boat feel’ here: What is boat feel for Carlos Dinares?

Carlos suggests you watch this video, and listen and see what you think the rower might be feeling:


Listen to The Body Sphere episode ‘The Swimmers’ on ABC Radio National or read the full transcript (well worth it for Kieren Perkins’ insights on winning, failure, talent and being a plodder).

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