North/South/East/West Xtra: Backstrokers are a unique breed in swimming
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For many, a day at the office involves sitting and staring at a computer. For high school athletes, a good portion of their day is spent staring at a chalkboard, inside books and down at a desk.
But for many athletes, their time is spent flat on their back, treading water and staring into the sky or up into the emptiness of a ceiling, sometimes holding this unconventional vantage point for hours on end.
Welcome to swimming backstroke, perhaps the most idiosyncratic of moves in a sport that already contains so much variance between its different strokes and events.
In more ways than one, in all levels of competition, it is a stroke that is truly one of a kind.
"It's the only one you're on your back, so as a result, it makes it more of a blind stroke," said North Allegheny swimming coach Corky Semler. "In the other strokes, you can lift your head to look and see where you're going. In backstroke, you really can't -- you have to rely on other cues in a pool area."
This is not to call a bulk of the sport's major strokes bland, as each has its own quirks that simultaneously distinguish it and make it challenging to master.
Backstroke, though, contains an entirely unique set of elements that separates it from the other strokes that are already fundamentally dissimilar.
The most obvious is the very body positioning, lying on the back, that is included in the stroke's name. Unlike the three other strokes, backstrokers do not have the benefit of seeing what is in front of them. In all other aspects of life, people have some sense and perspective of where they are going, be it walking, running or driving. Backstrokers instead face upward the entire swim, seeing their progress through marks on a ceiling, clouds in the sky and rows of flags that hang over the pool.
Things get compounded even more when a swimmer reaches the wall for a turn, when they have to know how close they are to the wall without the benefit of actually being able to see it.
But, for both the turns and the whole idea of being on your back for such a long time, swimmers usually always find a way to get accustomed to the situation, almost to the point of it being a regimented routine.
"Since there's flags above you, you kind of have to know your stroke count to know when to flip," said Moon senior Alexis Mitcheltree, who will swim for Eastern Michigan next season. "For my stroke count, it's three backstroke counts and then I flip over on to my stomach and then I do a one-arm freestyle turn and then I flip. It's all based on the stroke count when you're going to flip and get to the wall."
The lack of peripheral vision that comes with backstroke presents obstacles that go beyond turns -- namely by removing opponents from sight.
Athletes typically espouse the idea of running their own race and maintaining focus regardless of how others are doing, but the idea of an athlete not being able to see those they're competing against seems almost antithetical to the whole idea of competition.
For backstrokers, it's difficult to deal with, but many find ways to compensate.
"That's always the reason why backstroke is so hard because sometimes on the stroke, you kind of get that extra edge because you see the person in back of you or in front of you and you get faster," said North Allegheny sophomore Jackie Du, who Semler said is one of the top backstrokers in the WPIAL. "I kind of like it because it's your own race and you're not really racing against anyone else. At that moment, you just have to go really fast without that other edge."
While all other strokes begin on the starting blocks, with swimmers diving into the pool, backstrokers begin in the water, holding onto the block before releasing at the beginning of the race. Also, by virtue of having their face out of the water the entire race, backstrokers also have a different breathing pattern.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, it would appear to be a stroke set for specialist swimmers, though Semler noted that if that's the case for one stroke, it would be breaststroke, not backstroke.
It does take a special kind of athlete to excel as a backstroker, one that can fight fears and discomfort of being in such an unorthodox position for extended periods.
"Even if you're just lying on your back on the ground, you feel vulnerable -- someone can come on top of you and stuff like that," Moon swimming coach Zach Gebhardt said. "I think that's the same thing with even the little kids when you're teaching that and they feel vulnerable.
"It's tough for them to relax in the water, to keep their heads back and their legs up. That can be a very big battle and that can transpire all the way up through their high school and college careers."
Taking all of this into account, is there such a thing as a perfect backstroker? Gebhardt and Semler mentioned several physical traits that it takes to excel in the stroke. Among them: a powerful kick, a strong core and a long, lean frame.
But there is something more fundamental to being a backstroker, something inherent, as if one is simply born to be one, standing as just another imperceptible quality of such an extraordinary skill.
"That's a hard one to say," Semler said when asked what makes a good backstroker. "I think some kids are just comfortable swimming on their backs and some aren't. I can't really say that there's one type of kid that you look at and say, 'That kid's going to be a good backstroker.' "
First Published January 3, 2013 12:00 am