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Explainer: what makes a winning swimmer?

Athletes must execute their individualised race plan to the best of their ability to win. Reuters/Michael Dalder

Explainer: what makes a winning swimmer?

The Olympics are the pinnacle for world swimming. With 34 events in all, it’s where every young swimmer strives to be. What is it, then, that sets a winning swimmer apart?

Olympic events take place in a 50-metre pool with eight lanes and races can range from as little as 21 seconds to 16 minutes.

At the Rio Games, 906 swimmers from 172 different nations are competing to be the best in their discipline or stroke (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley).

The right combination

Some argue that good swimmers are born – with extremely long limbs, flippers for feet, large hands and lungs that border on superhuman capacity. All these help, but swimming actually requires the right balance between physiological fitness, technique and mental toughness.

The aim, of course, is to complete the set distance in the shortest time possible. While this may sound simple, races at the international level are often decided by as little as 0.01 of a second.

That’s literally a fingernail separating gold from silver; separating Olympic glory and the agonising feeling of defeat.

Indeed, the margin for error at the elite level is so slim that swimmers must execute a near-flawless race plan on the day to claim victory. Even before the race has begun, the thought and pressure of this can be too much for some.

Unlike team sports, there are no opponents or external factors such as wind or rain to contend with. Once the swimmers take their place behind the blocks, they’re in control of their own destiny.

The right start

When the start signal sounds, swimmers typically enter the water with a dive off their block (or perform an in-water dive for backstroke). The start contributes anywhere between 1% and 26% of total race time.

An elite swimmer can complete the start of the race in between 5.4 and 8 seconds.

Typically defined as the time from the start signal to when the swimmer’s head reaches 15m, an elite swimmer can complete the start of the race in between 5.4 and 8 seconds, depending on stroke. This is the part of the race when the swimmer is travelling fastest.

The importance of the start is, of course, greater in shorter races.

Swimmers then surface or break out into what’s known as free swimming. In this section of the race, swimmers must aim to travel as fast as possible while trying to be as efficient as possible to preserve energy.

Taking too many strokes will mean the swimmer expends too much energy to travel the same distance. It’s very similar to selecting a gear on a bicycle; selecting the wrong gear can result in wasted energy. The same can be said of swimming, and this becomes particularly important for long-distance races.

Not alone

In races over 50m (that’s all but one race in the Olympics), the swimmer must turn at the end of each lap. The goal is to change direction as quickly as possible because turns can contribute up to 33% of total race time.

Measured as the time it takes a swimmer who is 5m from the wall to swim 10m out from the wall after turning, an elite-level swimmer can turn in between 6.5 and 10 seconds.

Swimmers spend hours perfecting this movement in training as a good turner can make up valuable time; a swimmer who is proficient at turning can compensate for a slightly slower free swimming speed.

Many pieces of the puzzle must come together to produce a winning performance in swimming. What crowds at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium and the millions of viewers worldwide witness during competition is the product of months, years and sometimes decades of hard work – in and out of the pool.

And swimmers don’t do it all alone; behind almost every successful swimmer is a support network of coaches, sport scientists (biomechanists and physiologists), physiotherapists, medical staff, psychologists and, of course, family and friends. Each person in that team plays an important role in helping the swimmer win gold.

Ultimately, athletes must execute their individualised race plan to the best of their ability to win. They need to make every turn and every stroke count. Every little bit is important to the result of the race.