"The one man who has brought about tremendous improvement in American swimming records is L. deB. Handley of New York, undoubtedly the greatest swimming instructor in the world."(Spur, Oct., 1921). "It was Handley who invented and perfected the six-beat trudgeon crawl stroke, by means of which all former record marks in swimming have been erased by Handley's pupils. This master of the art labours on behalf of the sport he loves entirely without monetary reward."
L. deB. Handley's system of elementary and advanced instruction in swimming, received international attention and recognition that came in the form of invitations from many countries, including Great Britain and Australia, to lecture on his methods. The W.S.A. News said that the selection of an amateur, in preference to the many able professionals in the United States, "spoke eloquently" of how thoroughly the efficiency of Handley's methods was appreciated abroad.
However, Handley seldom set foot outside America to lecture. But coaches from around the world travelled to New York to observe his methods. This writer, as a swimmer, and later as a novice coach, came under the influence of Handley, indirectly, through his mentor, Jimmy Green, a great stroke technician, who studied under Handley in the 1920's. I was brought up on a 'steady diet' of Green's recollections of Handley; "second-hand-Handley," as it were.
L. deB. Handley of New York, undoubtedly the greatest swimming instructor in the world. For larger 50k photo click on image.
These pioneer coaches spent a great deal of time trying to figure out which aspects of technique were fundamentals, and which were not. In the absence of scientific techniques, and underwater movie photography, much of their reasoning was based on trial and error. All too often, they followed hunches that lead nowhere.
For the first half of the 20th century, swimmers and coaches tried all kinds of different notions. Many ideas seemed promising but ended in frustration and limited progress. With the benefit of hindsight , we may smile at these futile efforts, yet we nearly always pass through a phase of confused thinking before we reach enlightenment.
The early experimenters lived in an an age when mechanization was becoming commonplace. Everything was being placed into a neat synthesis; you did it precisely this way, and no other. For instance, there was a precise way to drive one of the "new-fangled automobiles." There was also a precise way to swim the "new-fangled crawl." There was no room for "individualization," as Handley called it. Yes, according to L. deB. Handley, there was only one precise way in which to swim the crawl, the correct way: in fact, his way!
Soon after the crawl arrived, swimming entered an era of intense technical analysis and experimentation. This era also saw the arrival of the synthesist, the person who gathers information, sorts it out, and files it away in neat pigeonholes for future use as needed. Handley was swimming's first synthesist, in the strictest sense of the word.
Handley was the first to clearly describe the changing postures of the arm-stroke, when the arm should be straight, when the arm should bend, how the pull should finish, how the arm should be recovered, how the stroke should be timed, how a swimmer should breathe, how many kicks to use, and most importantly, how to keep the stroke long, not to fight the water, how to set up an easy rhythm to avoid early fatigue. Handley was the authority. In fact, for a time, the whole world hung on his every word!
Handley set out exactly how the crawl stroke should be swum. For after all, in a sense, the crawl, at least the new American version of it, 'belonged' to Handley. It was his: in large measure, he had invented it, nurtured it, and experimented continuously with ways to improve it. He and Otto Wahle had successfully influenced Charles Daniels to change from the trudgeon stroke, with which he had started his career in competitive swimming, and to take up the crawl, the speedy, 'novelty' stroke of swimming. Daniels changed his leg action to a type of four beat kick which featured a pronounced major kick. This was the start of his great career.
Enthused by Daniels' improvement, Handley experimented with teaching more swimmers to kick faster. The sequence of events leading up to what happened next is not clear, but not too difficult to guess. In 1917, two important events occurred in Handley's career:
As a result, Handley decided to teach the W.S.A. female swimmers to use a 6-beat kick (three beats for each arm stroke.) Before long, his swimmers acquired such kicking dexterity that they were doing an 8- beat, then even faster, a 10-beat, but then…his experiments reached a point of no return.
L. deB. Handley produced "the most marvellous results" with a still more rapid thrash with the legs, as seen in the spectacular swimming of champion swimmers, Ethelda Bleibtrey, Charlotte Boyle, Claire Galligan and others.
Handley believed that the faster a swimmer could kick, the greater would be the increase in speed.
He experimented with still more rapid leg movements, soon an eight-beat crawl, of which he said that "a twelve year old water-sprite, Virginia Whitnach of the New York Womens' Swimming Association, has swum 212 2/3 yards in 3 minutes, 18 seconds recently, using the newly introduced eight-beat crawl and the performance claims to represent the best middle distance speed ever attained by a girl of her age."
Handley said that, while the time had been too short to reach any definite conclusions concerning the value of the eight-beat crawl, "results obtained with it are distinctly interesting." Later, another young girl, fourteen years old, also coached by Handley, swam the same distance in 3 minutes, 13 1/5 seconds, with the same stroke. Observers considered it "wonderful to relate that these youngsters have been swimming the crawl less than one year, yet they have all gone the distances without trouble using the faster leg thrash."
Soon the word went around that Handley was experimenting with an even faster leg kick than the eight-beat. Said one observer: "This would seem to indicate that the action is not abnormal, in some cases at least." However, experiments with an ever-increasing number of leg beats eventually proved unsuccessful, and the six-beat became the most common stroke rhythm.
Johnny Weissmuller, the great Olympic champion of the 1920's, and, indeed, commonly voted one of the all-time greats, said that he differed with those who claimed that the crawl could be improved by increasing the number of leg beats per arm cycle.
"A canvas among leading swimming authorities in 1917 disclosed that few of them thought the six-beat leg drive ever would be available for distances longer than one hundred or two hundred yards," said Weissmuller. "Nevertheless, Gertrude Ederle (coached by L. deB. Handley) used the eight-beat crawl in trimming two hours from the men's record for the English Channel swim, a notable achievement. And other swimmers have used the ten-beat leg drive in winning championships at the half-mile and longer distances, proving that this rapid flutter of the feet can be maintained effectively and without undue effort, regardless of distance."
Weissmuller said that the exploits of Gertrude Ederle with the eight-beat, and Ethel McGary with the ten-beat, were considered by some as significant; Ederle started her career using a six-beat, while McGary was an eight-beater, and neither purposely increased the speed of her leg drive, but fell into the quicker thrash unwittingly after several years of activity in the racing field. Weissmuller believed that this confirmed "the principle laid down" by his coach, William Bachrach, that the leg beat "should be governed, not by theory, but by the feeling of co-ordination."
Weissmuller said: "I claim in her case, that what Miss Ederle does with her feet has no significance. She has such powerful arms and shoulders that she gets practically ninety-nine per cent of her propelling progress out of them. Whether she is fluttering her feet six, eight, or a dozen times to each revolution of the arms does not mean anything in her case, because her arms are pulling so powerfully that the feet are nothing but trailers. I believe she could swim every bit as fast if she had her legs tied together."
Weissmuller said that, as swimmers became more proficient, they acquired a faster kick than they started with, and that they showed a tendency to speed up the flutters as they gained skill. With increasing arm power and skill their legs relaxed more, enabling the muscles to work more rapidly because they no longer carried so great a power load. ("Swimming the American Crawl", Weissmuller, Putnam, London, 1930)
Handley had definite views on the ideal physique for swimming. He said : "Often discussion arises concerning the best physical build for swimming and we hear all kinds of theories on the subject. The latest, outlined by a well known California instructor, is that the various strokes are suited to people of a definite type and that each individual must adopt the style best adapted to his or her particular conformation in order to attain a maximum of efficiency."
Handley said that, according to this authority the breaststroke is especially fitted to short men and women who have heavy, powerful legs; the backstroke to those slight of build and possessed of very supple, loose-jointed arms and legs; the trudgeon to stout swimmers; the crawl to tall persons having long arms, thin legs and large hands and feet.
"This classification is hardly borne out by results in competition" said Handley. "The best proof of its lack of foundation is the fact that contestants in no way complying with the mentioned requirements have attained the highest rank among exponents of the four strokes in question."
Handley gave breaststroke swimming as an example, and said, "For instance, America's present men leaders , Bobbie Skelton, and Stephen Ruddy, far from being short and heavy-legged, are tall and rangy, while our girl record holders, Ruth and Eleanor Smith, are so slight as to appear almost frail."
In backstroke swimming, Handley said that the three topnotchers of the day - Warren Kealoha, Perry McGillivray and Harold Kruger - instead of being slight and loosely put together were closely knit and exceedingly muscular. "Also, Ethelda Bleibtrey, until recently holder of all world records for women, was not exactly sylph-like and loose jointed", said Handley.
"The fact is that swimming possibilities are not determined by any particular build" said Handley "but by a combination of qualities which we term collectively "natural ability", yet which we have been unable so far to define or classify. Of the component parts of "natural ability" we are totally ignorant. On the other hand, the list of champions and record holders in the various strokes includes swimmers of all types, tall and short, stout and lean, light muscled and heavy. This seems to demonstrate that ability in swimming is not a matter of mould and that there is no need to fit strokes to individuals as one might fit clothes."
"The mistaken belief that strict compliance with accepted standards of form, or style, is not necessary to gain a maximum of speed and endurance in swimming seems to have become rather wide-spread," said Handley in 1931. "One hears the theory of individualism discussed quite a bit in aquatic circles nowadays."
"As a matter of fact, good form is essential to the complete execution of human physical resources in the water and without it no swimmer can hope to achieve the limit of his potentialities," said Handley. "Anyone who has studied the history of organized swimming competition will realize that the evolution of the stroke and progress have gone hand in hand. Improvements in methods have marked each step forward in speed. Each phase in the evolution has brought about the creation of fresh records and better average performances."
While Handley conceded that it was "true enough that build and make-up must be taken into consideration, common sense will make it clear that a prospective devotee of the crawl who is lithe and limber of body will profit by adopting a longer reach of the arms and a more rapid thrash of the legs than one suitable to one heavily built, closely knit, less supple of muscle."
"That men and women addicted to faulty strokes occasionally become champions and record breakers, a fact advocates of individualism bring up in support of their theories, is not evidence against the value and importance of form."
"A swimmer gifted with exceptional natural ability may be very successful in spite of handicapping faults. Unquestionably, however, the same swimmer would be capable of still greater feats were those faults eliminated. The annals of water sports provide instances aplenty of famous mermen and naiads who reaped signal laurels with more or less unorthodox styles, but did not do their best swimming until the guidance of expert mentors enabled them to perfect form."
"The doctrine of individualism is the more uncertain and dangerous in that acquired bad habits all too often are mistaken for natural tendencies, inborn proclivities. Take a self-taught, or a badly-schooled swimmer, who learns faulty, even unnatural movements. He will, after a while, find them easier to perform than correct, natural movements, for the simple reason that he has become thoroughly accustomed to them from constant usage."
Handley cited the example of a schoolboy swimmer of remarkable promise developed in the United States some years ago. During his junior term he was taken in hand by a prominent club coach, who at once noted that the boy executed the recovery of both arms with palms of hands turned upward, a fault which caused unnecessary muscular strain and impaired his balance.
He claimed that, "anyone with a smattering of anatomical knowledge is aware that the natural, unstrained, easiest way to carry the arms forward above the surface is to turn the hands palm down. This was carefully explained to the youth by his new tutor and he undertook to effect the change. Of course the unfamiliar motion felt clumsy and awkward. One cannot break himself of formed habits at a moment's notice."
"Practice very soon would have enabled the youth to become used to the correct recovery, swim more comfortably and increase his speed. But the brief experiment convinced him it was not suited to his particular requirements. He clung to the faulty style and never fulfilled expectations. It needs hardly be added that non-contestants should be as anxious as racing swimmers to gain form. Especially when danger threatens, a stroke that affords the maximum of speed and endurance may prove invaluable." (The Swimmer, July 1931) (Note: "The Swimmer" was a Canadian magazine. It is long extinct.)
Handley's early development of the crawl occured before the era of hard training. This was the time when new techniques were being developed, and there was comparatively little attention paid to training methods. Swimmers found that they could make great improvement on previous marks merely by improving their techniques and working to achieve continuous momentum as well as increased rhythm and relaxation. The development of the crawl resulted in the concept of continuous propulsion, rather than the sporadic stop-start actions of the earlier swimming strokes.
Handley was only human. Although he was one of the great pioneers in the history of swimming, he made mistakes too. He did not believe in tailoring the stroke to the individual swimmer —"individualization," he called it—and he incorrectly pursued the notion that "if a fast kick is good, an even faster kick would be better." The kick had to be done to a precise and "just-so" cadence. Anything else was incorrect. However, the disadvantages under which the pioneer coaches worked need be understood. They had to start from scratch to find the best way to apply each phase of the stroke. They had to find answers to the many puzzling questions that confronted them at that early stage of crawl development. Remember, in those days, there were not many talented or accomplished crawl swimmers around to use as models of "good form," as effective swimming was then known.
Thus, it is not difficult to understand how later, when more swimmers took up the crawl, and more varieties of the stroke were swum internationally with great and undeniable success, how the somewhat hide-bound thinking of the pioneers on stroke technique was thrown into disarray. This was especially true of the advent of such great swimmers as Gyorgy Mitro (Hungary, 1948), Hironoshin Furuhashi (Japan, 1950), George Breen (USA, 1956), and Murray Rose (Australia, 1956) who swam the crawl with either broken-tempo, or reduced two-beat leg actions. The sport had moved into yet another era of transition.
To be continued in our next issue.