There is nothing wrong with triathlons (i.e. swim, bike, run), biathlons (i.e. swim/bike), or pentathlons (i.e. swim, run, shoot, fence, ride), but I like swimming to be just that: swimming. Therein lies one of the reasons I like open water swimming (at least open water swims with in-the-water starts and finishes.)
Unfortunately, because of the limitations of pools, it isn’t practical for pool swimming competitions to be just swimming. Competitive swimming in pools doesn’t just involve swimming skills. In fact, competitive pool swimming might just as well be called triathlons.
Let’s face it. The outcome of pool swimming events are increasingly determined by walls: diving off of them and the acrobatic skills involved in reversing direction at them then jumping horizontally toward the other end, rather than by swimming. Yes, pool swimming might be called a triathlon (dive, swim, acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-and-a-horizontal-jump.*) And, quite regrettably, the percentage of performance involving the swimming portion of pool-swimming-triathlons is increasingly decreasing, especially in the shorter events. Just as in traditional triathlons (swim, bike, run), in which swimming plays a comparatively small role in determining performance, pool swimming performance has become increasingly reliant on diving and acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-horizontal-jump skills (more commonly known as the start and the turn); neither of which have anything to do with swimming, other than as peripheral skills necessitated by the limitations of the length and width of pools and the time required to run a meet. The taller swimmers get (and the average height has taken, well, leaps upward); the stronger are their legs (also, having taken great leaps); the higher, the longer, the more springy, and the better angled are the blocks (now equipped with hand rails): the smaller role in performance is affected by swimming skills.
My dictionaries define the verb to swim thusly: “1 a : to propel oneself in water by natural means (as movements of the limbs, fins, or tail)” Please note, it doesn’t define swimming as “to propel oneself into the water head first by natural (or any other) means.” That would be to dive: “1 a : to plunge into water intentionally and especially headfirst.” Neither do my dictionaries define to swim as “to turn.” As in: “3d : to set in another especially contrary direction.”
Let’s face it. Pool swimming competitions consist of diving, swimming, and acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-subsequent-horizontal-jump * (turning): a triathlon made up of swimming and two peripherally-related-to-swimming athletic skills. Yet, we talk about the swim-tri as if it was just swimming.
Language doesn’t always define things explicitly. Words are often used loosely and refer to multiple, confusing actions (at least if the words are used as verbs, they refer to actions). Unfortunately, I think we define the game of swimming too loosely; we allow it to refer to the whole tri-swim enchilada. As a result, we have slid farther away from swimming toward a dive/swim/acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-horizontal-jump. We have improved the dive (refining technique and continually adding and improving diving equipment**) even as the diver has improved (bigger, stronger, faster). We have improved technique on the acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-jump. And, of course, “swimming” has naturally selected for, and rewarded, those who can perform the plunging-into-water-intentionally-and-especially-headfirst and acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-jump more skillfully and more powerfully, oft times at the expense of those who swim more skillfully.***
Me? I’d like to move swimming as close to swimming as possible. I’d like to de-emphasize the peripheral skills of intentional-headfirst-plunging-into-water and of acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-horizontal-jump as much as practical. Yep, I really would like in-the-water starts and finishes in a swimming pool. They could be done. But seeing as pools aren’t wide enough to accommodate the masses, it’s just not practical. Meets would take much longer. Yikes, pool swimming meets go for near-forever as it is. Moreover, pools aren’t long enough to eliminate the acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-horizontal-jump. And, let’s face it, in all but the shortest of races (25 yd/m or 50 long course), when the swimmer gets toward the end of the pool, the swimmer faces getting his face facing the other way.
Okay, Keith. So what do you propose? Well, since I asked, here goes:
I realize some of my ideas, may seem somewhat radical to some, but let’s pump up the swimming in the swimming:
1. Minimize the dive. Let’s start from a secure, non-slippery mat on the deck. Or, at least, let’s lower the blocks substantially, shorten them so we eliminate running relay starts (and, ugh, a quadrathlon), remove the handrails, make the blocks horizontal instead of angled, and ensure they produce no spring.
2. Let’s do dive-in backstrokes. I don’t have any problem with each stroke having a different set of rules and skills for swimming, but why not make the dives fungible? Why have to spend limited (and expensive) pool time on another version of a specialized peripheral skill and favor the acrobats over the swimmers? Of course, there are many other benefits to dive-in backstrokes (for which we use them in ASA competitions), not the least of which would be that meets run faster.
3. Minimize the acrobatic-reversal-of-direction. Eliminate the hand touch requirements. All swimming governing bodies have already done so for backstroke and freestyle. I’d like to see other swimming organizations allow non-hand touch, flip acrobatic-reversals-of-direction in butterfly and breaststroke races as well (as we already have done in ASA). Non-hand touch, flip, acrobatic-reversals-of-direction are safer, more fungible, and more swimming-like. As do dive-in backstrokes; non-hand-touch, flip, acrobatic-reversals-of-direction also obviate the need for specialized skills peripheral to swimming while favoring less the acrobats over the swimmers.
* I find “acrobatic-reversal-of-direction-with-a-jump” more descriptive of what we do at the end of the pool than “turn.”
** Oh, how I hate the inclusion of performance-enhancing equipment in swimming. (Please refer to my postings on tech suits.)
*** Let’s not forget that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Momentum counts in swimming races and swimming-tris. Swimming is very much about maintaining velocity. A longer, more powerful, and more efficient intentional, headfirst, plunge into the water produces greater initial swimming speed and less distance within which to lose that velocity.