History of Butterfly

Jack Nelson's timing was impeccable. It was 1954. Nelson was in Germany attending a clinic staged by two college swim coaches. Just a few months earlier, FINA, swimming's international governing body, had okayed butterfly as a new stroke.

Nelson's presence at the clinic was sheer happenstance. He was 21 with negligible competitive swimming experience. He had tried football at two colleges but didn't stay at either long enough to earn a single academic credit. He subsequently joined the Air Force and ended up in Germany, where he played plenty of football (back then, the services took sports as seriously as marksmanship) and served as a placeholder on swimming relays.

I didn't know FINA from shina," Nelson concedes, but he was intrigued by what the two coaches, Yale's Bob Kiphuth and Ohio State's Mike Peppe, had to say about the new stroke. A sixth sense told Nelson there might be a match. Patient tutoring from Kiphuth and Peppe over the next two weeks gave credence to his intuition. Nelson proved a natural for the dolphin kick, and despite his squat build, he had the flexibility to handle the stroke's unique rhythm. Within two months he was hovering around the 100- and 200-meter butterfly world records. Within two years he was an Olympian.

I guess you could say that butterfly, coming along as it did, changed my life," says Nelson, the 1976 U.S. women's Olympic coach.


In fact, butterfly wasn't a new stroke, but a natural progression of what began 20 years earlier. The only thing new was FINA's begrudging acceptance of the truck-size loophole in the rules governing breaststroke.

Prior to 1933, breaststroke was swum mostly as it is today, with surface pulls and frog kicks. That summer, an enterprising swimmer named Henry Myers reasoned, quite correctly as it would turn out, that pulling his arms further back and recovering them above the water would lead to a much faster stroke.

A close examination of the rulebook convinced Myers he was on solid ground. The rules said nothing about above-water recovery, and since he retained the frog kick, he would be on the safe side of the prohibition against vertical leg movement.

Myers unveiled his creation at the Brooklyn Central YMCA in late 1933. In the first heat of the 150-yard individual medley (breaststroke, backstroke, freestyle), he swam against Wallace Spence, the reigning national champion.

According to Myers in a letter he wrote to Kiphuth in 1940 (which Kiphuth reprinted in his book, Swimming), he beat Spence by 10 feet on the breaststroke leg. Spence thought Myers was doing freestyle instead of breaststroke. The crowd didn't know what the make of Myers' unexpected creation, and neither did the officials. Meyers had given them no warning of his modified breaststroke, forcing them to huddle like a football team to determine the outcome. What Myers did didn't seem right, but they couldn't find anything in the rules to say what he did was wrong. They finally conceded that Myers had the letter of the law on his side.

Myers also had precedent behind him. Breaststrokers for years had recovered their arms above the water on the last stroke before a turn and officials had found nothing wrong with it. What had Myers done that had been so different? When the results were finally announced, there was no mention of a disqualification. Butterfly had its toehold in competitive swimming.


Myers, quite predictably, was vilified. Spence scratched from the final in protest. He advised Myers to learn how to swim breaststroke properly. A magazine article questioned the sportsmanship of "young Myers, who observed the letter but not the spirit of the breaststroke rules.

Myers ignored the criticism. In a meet in New Jersey in March, 1934, he warned the officials of his innovation. They acquiesced, though Myers suspected that had little to do with a careful analysis of the rules. More likely, they were unwilling to contradict the New York officials. Myers got third in the 100-yard breaststroke that day. The winner, Kenneth Stevenson, also recovered his arms above the water.

Word of the Myers' speed boost spread quickly. An early practitioner, Lester Kaplan, had a best time in 1934 of 1:10.0 in the 100-yard breaststroke before he started using the butterfly pull. Afterward, his time dropped to 1:07.4, just a half second short of the world record. (World records were kept in yards in addition to meters until 1968.) Soon after, even Spence accepted the reality of the altered stroke. Within 10 years, all top-level breaststrokers were using an above-water recovery.

"They didn't have much choice," says Buddy Baarcke, who in 1954 became the first American to set a world record (57.3) in the 100-yard butterfly. "They had to change in order to keep up.

Myers was quite proud of his creation. He credited it with saving the breaststroke, which he felt had become too slow and viewer unfriendly when compared to backstroke and freestyle

"It was uninteresting to watch a breaststroke race," he wrote to Kiphuth. "In time, the old breaststroke would have become as passè as the side stroke, as far a racing is concerned. The butterfly stroke has changed the picture completely. A butterfly breaststroke race is a very exciting race to watch. The splashing and violent arm motion seem to be quite conducive to spectator enthusiasm."


Time would prove Myers wrong on both counts. Granted, the traditional breaststroke went into abeyance, but it flourished once FINA made butterfly a separate stroke and then adjusted the rules to keep breaststrokers from swimming entire races underwater.

What's more, coaches knew that the butterfly pull with a frog kick was a fundamentally flawed movement, making the stroke more painful than exciting to watch. As David Armbruster, the scientific voice of competitive swimming from the 1930s through the 1950s, wrote in his book, Swimming and Diving, "Flying arms and orthodox breast stroke kick were not a good basic mechanical combination. The kick was a retarding type of action compared to the faster, more powerful action of the flying arms."

Armbruster's solution was the dolphin kick, which he developed in 1935 at the University of Iowa and described in copious detail in his book. But for years the dolphin kick remained a boulder teetering on the edge of a cliff - all potential energy. While the rules were lenient enough to permit Myers' innovation, they offered little wiggle room when it came to the kick. There could be no vertical leg movement.

In 1953, FINA finally faced the inevitable. The rules had to change or breaststroke as originally designed would slip into extinction. FINA closed the loophole concerning arm recovery above the water and created a set of rules for butterfly. The key addition was that legs could kick synchronously horizontally or vertically. The dolphin kick was in.


Baarcke recognized immediately the importance of the rule changes. By his own assessment, he was a poor breaststroker. His butterfly pull was strong, but his frog kick was weak, and he couldn't master the timing of the two. He had studied Armbruster's book and knew all about the dolphin kick. He felt certain the vertical whip motion of the legs would make a huge difference. Soon after he read about the rule change, he talked to his coach at the University of North Carolina.

"What is it?" the coach asked.

"It's butterfly," said Baarcke, itching to try it with a dolphin kick. A 50-yard time trial proved his instinct correct. His best with a frog kick was 30.5. With the dolphin kick he dropped to 27.0. The next day he raced the best breaststroker on the team who, of course, used the butterfly pull with a frog kick. Baarcke won by three seconds with a time of 25.6.

Baarcke was about to graduate from North Carolina and enter the Army, so he never had the chance to develop fully as an international-level butterflier, but the technique he used of two dolphin kicks per stroke became the standard, particularly in shorter races.

However, the frog kick didn't disappear from butterfly. For a few years some coaches and swimmers designated certain laps in a race for frog kick in order to conserve energy. This approach didn't last long. In 1956, Bill Yorzyk, who, like Nelson, was granted a late entry into competitive swimming's elite by virtue of the nascent butterfly, won the Olympic gold medal (Nelson finished fourth) with a continuous dolphin kick. That set the pattern. Though the rule allowing the frog kick would remain until 1970, by the late 1950s, "everyone was learning butterfly with a dolphin kick," says Sue Anderson, one of America's early world record holders in the women's 200-meter butterfly. "There were a few older swimmers still using the breaststroke kick, but we all recognized the dolphin kick was faster, and that's what the best butterfliers used."

Surprisingly, a stroke developed on the fly, so to speak, has changed little over the last 50 years. Nelson, Anderson and Baarcke, all three of whom spent much of their adult lives coaching, attest to only one change - the underwater kicks off of the starts and turns.

But, of course, there's been another change. Butterfliers have gotten much faster. Yorzyk's world record in 1956 was 2:16.7. The current record, held by Michael Phelps, is 1:53.93.

"I guess," says Baarcke, "we taught our students pretty well."


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