I can swim crawl, breaststroke and backstroke for an hour or more without shaming myself, but one length of butterfly leaves me utterly spent and breathless. Not to mention creating a tidal wave almost large enough to displace the pool’s population. And yet … even in my ineptitude, I get a glimpse of the power and grace behind butterfly’s ceaseless undulation, and I have a strong desire to master it.
According to Dr Julie “Madfish” Bradshaw MBE, butterfly is “the hardest stroke in the book. You need to be strong, but it all comes down to correct technique.” Bradshaw should know. She has held the world record for swimming the Channel butterfly since 2002 and in 2011 set a new “fly” world record by swimming around Manhattan Island – 28.5 miles in nine hours and 28 minutes.
Steven Shaw, creator of the Shaw Method of Swimming, which takes the principles of Alexander technique to water, calls fly the “four-wheel drive” of strokes, requiring equal propulsion from the upper and lower body. “The leg action moves you forward and down, the arm action moves you forward and up,” he explains. But it’s the undulation or “wave action” that is at the heart of the stroke. “It provides the foundation for both the arm and leg actions and mobilises the spine,” says Shaw. “There’s something almost primal about the wave action. Once you get the rhythm going, it’s meditative.”
If that’s the case, I’m definitely missing something. A quick appraisal from Shaw reveals a common mistake (and the cause of that antisocial tidal wave). “You’re putting too much emphasis on getting the arms out and over the top,” he tells me. “But it is wasted effort – when the arms are out of the water, they provide no propulsion – the emphasis should be on what’s going on under the water.”
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That makes sense when you consider that butterfly derived from breaststroke. The slowest phase of breaststroke is the underwater recovery of the arms. Back in the 1930s, some swimmers in the United States realised they could go quicker if they took their arms over the surface instead. Then they added the characteristic dolphin-kick to further reduce drag. Butterfly was born. But it only became a bona fide separate stroke according to FINA (the International Swimming Federation) in 1952. In world-record terms it is now second only to front crawl, but even when swum efficiently, energy cost is high. The most recent compendium of physical activities’ energy cost rates butterfly swimming at 13.8 Mets, meaning that the amount of energy required is almost 14 times greater than at rest. It makes Bradshaw’s feat all the more remarkable. Why fly?
“I had set various front crawl records in the 1980s but I’d always been fascinated by butterfly,” says Bradshaw, who is a swimming coach, teacher, counsellor and speaker. “When I heard about Vicki Keith, a Canadian swimmer who, in 1989, became the first person to swim the Channel butterfly, I had an inkling to try butterfly and see where I could take it. I enjoy the movement, it’s so graceful. And swimming in open water, it’s good to be able to see forward – you don’t have to keep lifting the head. I can go into my own world.” Bradshaw is planning another fly world record attempt next month: swimming the length of the river Humber.
While few of us would have the will, let alone the shoulders, to follow in her wake, Bradshaw says she has seen an increased interest in butterfly since her exploits began. “It’s something people seem to really want to learn,” she says. Shaw agrees – and surprisingly, finds it one of the easiest strokes to teach. “Very few people have bad habits to unlearn because they have little or no experience of it,” he says.
“Kick, pull, recover” is Shaw’s mantra for me during our lesson. I can’t quite get the timing right. I keep beginning my arm pull too early, while I’m still too low in the water, and I realise it’s because my brain is rushing to get to what it perceives to be the “important bit” where I can fling my arms out, a la Phelps.
In true Alexander technique fashion, though, you “lead” the stroke with the head in Shaw method fly. As the head rises, the hips drop and the knees bend, ready to unleash the power of the kick. Then you press the head and chest down, the hips moving up as the legs extend. “What I like about butterfly is that you have to work with the water, not impose yourself on it. It’s a really three-dimensional stroke,” says Shaw.
To begin with, I feel as if I’m trying to do that trick when you pat your head and rub your tummy simultaneously – but gradually it starts to make more sense and on the rare occasions that it all comes together, I’m amazed at how far I travel per stroke. Even more amazingly, I’m not out of breath. Maybe I can fly after all.
• Steven Shaw is holding a butterfly masterclass on 11 August. The next six-week workshop begins on 5 September.
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