Swimmers overcome height challenges

Park Tae Hwan has revolutionized techniques for turning a small body frame to the swimmer’s advantage.
Park Tae Hwan has revolutionized techniques for turning a small body frame to the swimmer’s advantage. Photo by Florian Koenigsberger.

In swimming, size matters. But short swimmers are finding strategies to succeed.

Tall swimmers are capable of propelling themselves more quickly through the water and can reach out farther to cross the finish line. The average height for an Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 200-meter freestyle is 6 feet 4 inches over the past 12 years. But shorter professional swimmers and swimmers at Yale use their ability to make quicker kick-turns and react faster to changes in the water to overcome height disadvantages.

“Tall swimmers are at an advantage because they have bigger feet to kick with and longer arms, longer levers, to pull with. They arguably have to exert more energy to move their longer arms and bigger legs,” freestyle and breast stroke swimmer Andrew Heymann ’15 said.

He added that smaller swimmers can overcome size disadvantages because they are more adept at feeling and adjusting to the flow of the water.

The Yale men’s swim team, whose members average five feet 11 inches — shorter than their Ivy rivals — can look to the professional swimming circuit for strategies to succeed.

South Korea’s Park Tae Hwan, for example, won the gold for the 400m freestyle event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the silver in the 400m freestyle in London this summer. Park stands 6 feet tall, 3.6 inches below the Olympic average, and his body frame is smaller and less powerful than rivals such as U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and Sun Yang of China. Despite his size challenges, Park has developed his own distinct style of swimming that helped propel him to his medal-winning records.

“Park lacked elasticity whereas he demonstrated strengths in his ability to react quickly. Tall and big players like Michael Phelps tend to be very powerful and rely very much on their power,” Roh Min Sang, Park’s head coach during the Beijing Olympics, told the News in an interview in Korean in August.

Park’s first step to beating his competition was to discover the type of race that best suited him and then to analyze his rivals, such as Michael Phelps, in order to take advantage of Phelps’ weaknesses and emulate his strengths given Park’s smaller size, Rho said. Although Park has yet to best Phelps in a race, he surpassed rival Lochte in London.

Because he cannot reach as far, Park must use one more stroke to cross the finish line than his rivals, though it takes him less time to make each stroke. This difference is less pronounced in longer events that require more strokes in total, so short swimmers like Park do not normally attempt the 50-meter freestyle.

But even in longer events, arm length can play a decisive role. During the London Olympics, although Park was faster than Sun Yang, who stands 6 feet 5 inches, both players recorded the last touch at the same time because Yang could reach farther. Roh stressed that short swimmers can overcome this disadvantage if they push through the last stroke and stay focused on moving their arms faster than their rivals until the very end.

“It was great to see him tie China’s Sun Yang,” freestyler Pat Killian ’14 said. “Sun is about six inches taller than him. Park’s pretty short. They were an odd pair on the medal stand.”

Park enhanced his ability to breathe on both sides of the water in order to observe all eight lanes with both eyes. Through practice, he was able to better understand the flow of the water and how to react to it.

Park’s technique of judging the movement of the water is also important for the Bulldogs.

Breast stroke swimmer Danny McDermott ’14 said a swimmer’s “feel” for the water can be a decisive factor in his race, and the Elis focus on this factor in training.

“Some people have a natural technique that allows them to efficiently pull more water than others, but it can be perfected through conscious effort,” he said.

Roh added that maintaining balance is a crucial weapon for short swimmers such as Park.

Like Park, Killian believes that balance is key and that a swimmer should know his or her body reacts in the water.

“I would say that swimming is largely a game of balance, which is keeping oneself level in the water, and to master that, each swimmer has to deal with his or her own body, and that develops individual technique,” Killian said.

Whereas the Bulldogs might look up to Park, the Korean himself looked to Ian Thorpe for techniques to overcome his physical disadvantages. But Rho and members of Yale’s swim team interviewed all said each swimmer must assess his own physical strengths and weaknesses.

The Elis carefully consider which events they should compete in given their statures, and analyze body movements to maximize their power.

“I have formed my particular technique through countless hours of training. My team at home did a lot of drilling and sculling, both of which help isolate particular body movements and make them more efficient,” McDermott said. “Breaststroke is arguably the most technically difficult stroke, and since I am smaller than most of my teammates and competitors both in height and weight, I naturally gravitated towards a stroke that requires more technique than brute strength.”

Captain Jared Lovett ’13 said physical proportions might be just as important as height in determining a swimmer’s potential. An ideal swimmer’s body is a long torso, shorter legs, longer arms, big hands, and lean but not bulky muscle, he said.

“Personally, I was lucky enough to have long arms, with my wingspan being longer than my height, and a long torso relative to my height,” Lovett said.

He added that height definitely helps, but it is not a limiting factor in determining one’s speed in the water.

Besides having a clear understanding of their physical limitations, the Elis looked to swimmers like Park and developed their own tricks to compensate for these drawbacks.

“I do have a lot of respect for Park. He is well known for having a nearly “perfect freestyle stroke,” Lovett said. “He is also a relatively short Olympic swimming medalist, so his technique has to be perfect if he wants to keep pace with the taller players, and actually finishes his races really fast,” he added.

Heymann ensures he is able to maintain a faster stroke throughout his race by practicing solid technique when fatigued.

“Since I am at a size disadvantage, I focus on efficiency in the water,” Heymann said. “While bigger players will rely heavily on their strength and size, I am able to compete by making fewer technical errors while racing.”

Yale took third in the Ivy League Championships last season.

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