SWIMNEWS ONLINE: April 1997 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

No other stroke has undergone so many changes as breaststroke. The arms and legs were meant to be kept completely submerged in breaststroke swimming, but, in 1934, some swimmers found a loophole in the rules that allowed them to recover their arms over the water, thus creating the butterfly. Although the butterfly eventually emerged as a separate event, it was to take nearly twenty years to return orthodox breaststroke to its original form.

But what happened then? Breaststroke was meant to be swum as a surface stroke, yet some swimmers found another loophole in the rules that enabled them to swim underwater for most of the race, and it took from 1956 to 1987 to finally define breaststroke as the surface stroke it was intended to be.

The saga of the breaststroke rules lasted a total of fifty years, and although the memory is gradually vanishing, there are many lessons to be learned from the political and technical bungling that adversely affected the growth of the sport, and the careers of many individual athletes.

By studying the course of these events, swimming legislators can avoid making the same mistakes, while still encouraging innovative athletes, and ensuring that existing swimming techniques are performed according to the intention of the rules.

Enter the Butterfly

Like many crawl swimmers switching to breaststroke, young Henry Myers felt restricted by the resistance caused by the stroke's underwater arm recovery.

He thought: "Why not pull right through to my hips with both arms, and then bring them forward over the water like a double freestyle arm recovery?"

The result was amazing. Myers, swimming his so-called "butterfly stroke," soon found he could beat his club's best breaststroke swimmers in short practice swims.

Because only the kick resembled breaststroke, it seems unlikely that Myers' original intention was to invent a new "style" of breaststroke or to circumvent the existing rules. Perhaps he thought he had produced a sort of novelty stroke that was really only "half-breaststroke," and that his escapade would be good for a laugh.

Only after close study of the breaststroke rules did Myers find to his surprise that the new stroke complied with the rules in every respect. And he was probably even more surprised when his coach, W. W. Robertson of the Brooklyn Dragon Swim Club, encouraged him to try out the stroke in the 150-yard medley event at the Brooklyn Central YMCA swim, meet in December, 1933.

Rademacher played it safe by not using the overarm technique
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © ISHOF

Myers' entry into the event was to set the whole world of swimming on its head. He became the first person to swim the butterfly stroke in competition.
Myers was seeded in the first heat with the favourite, Wallace Spence, the American medley champion. Spence took the lead at the start but Myers soon caught him half way down the 25-yard pool, and quickly pulled away. The crowd was taken aback by Myers' odd looking stroke. They couldn't figure out what was happening. At the end of the breaststroke leg, Spence was about 3 yards behind, but he slowly overtook Myers to pass him before the race finished. Spence was to say later that he thought Myers had been swimming freestyle.

Coach Robertson showed the rule book to the puzzled officials to prove that Myers' odd looking stroke did not contravene the rules. Myers wasn't disqualified, and this set the precedent for using the "butterfly-breaststroke," as it became known.

A reaction soon started that was to continue for many years after Myers' retirement from competition. The Central YMCA's magazine, in a "vitriolic article," made disparaging remarks about "the sportsmanship of young Myers who observed the letter but not the spirit of the breaststroke rules."

Still, there were others, carried away by enthusiasm and imagination, who acclaimed butterfly as "the most sensational development in swimming in recent years." They emphasised that "it meets the requirements of the breaststroke rules at every point." One can only wonder what would happen today if anyone was suddenly to attempt to introduce so drastic a departure from accepted technique.

Butterfly Grows in Popularity

On March 2nd, 1934, in a novice 100-yard breaststroke race at an AAU meet in Harrison, New Jersey, the new stroke was used again in competition. Before the start, the local officials were told that two swimmers, Henry Myers and Kenneth Stevenson, were going to introduce "a new type of breaststroke that had been approved by New York officials," and was currently in use in New York meets, and that "what was good enough for New York should be good enough for New Jersey."

The officials, loathe to start a controversy with the New York officials, agreed not to disqualify the stroke. Consequently, both Kenneth Stevenson and Henry Myers used the butterfly, and the finish was: 1-Stevenson, 2-Muntz, 3-Myers. (Kiphuth, R.J.H.,1942) Butterfly-breaststroke soon grew in popularity through school, college, and national competition in the United States. People began to take it seriously, and some even claimed to have originated it.

The outstanding early proponents of the stroke were Kaplan and Friesel. The stroke was first used in intercollegiate swimming in a specially arranged dual meet between the University of Michigan and an all-star C.C.N.Y. team. The new stroke was used by Lester Kaplan against John Schmieler who was the National Intercollegiate breaststroke champion. Kaplan left the champion well behind for the first three lengths of the twenty-five yard pool, but was unable to maintain his pace over the final length.

The early breaststroke swimmers used butterfly-breaststroke for only three to six strokes on each length. However, more and more swimmers developed the ability to "fly" the whole 220 yards, and Jack Kasley set world records in 1936 for the 220 yards, 200 metres and 200 yards. The National Intercollegiate record very quickly dropped from 2:30 to 2:22. (Mann & Fries, 1940)

The Butterfly Advantage

Why did the discovery of the butterfly-breaststroke create such an advantage over the original style of breaststroke swimming? The difference lay in the fact that a swimmer could almost double the length of the arm pull used in the conventional stroke, and that the arms could be recovered over the water with less resistance. Another advantage of the butterfly-breaststroke was that the overwater recovery allowed the swimmer to raise the head to inhale.

It should be pointed out that, prior to the "invention" of butterfly-breaststroke, there were breaststroke swimmers such as 1928 and 1932 Olympic champion, Yoshiyuki Tsuruta, and his contemporary, bronze medalist, Teofilo Ildefonso, who both used underwater breaststroke techniques. They pulled through to their hips but recovered their arms forward under the water.

While Henry Myers was the first swimmer to use the butterfly arm strokes in continous sequence, it is interesting to note that each time Ildefonso swam into the turn, he used a single butterfly arm recovery as he reached for the wall, and so did breaststroke world-record-holder Erich Rademacher of Germany.

A note concerning Erich Rademacher: On a visit to the United States in 1927, Rademacher caused much protest when he gained a considerable advantage by bringing his arms over the water in a double arm recovery as he went into the turn, and also when he touched at the end of a race. It is significant that Rademacher insisted, even at that early date, that this in no way infringed on the rules of breaststroke swimming. Nevertheless, at the Amsterdam Olympics, the following year, Rademacher played safe by not using this technique. (Oppenheim, 1977). But on this occasion, the tables were turned when Rademacher, swimming on the surface, could not match the prolonged underwater swimming of Tsuruta, who won the Olympic title in a world record time of 2:45.4, although Rademacher was recognized as the faster swimmer of the two swimmers, when swimming the surface stroke. (Dawson, 1987).

"Half-Breaststroke" or "Half-Butterfly"?

Nearly sixty years later, it is difficult to understand why officials were in such a hurry to press for the acceptance of a new stroke that looked so little like breaststroke, even though it met all the requirements of the rules.

Increased speed, of course, was the main reason. People were jubilant at the discovery of butterfly-breaststroke, because it would speed up the sedate breaststroke that, for a long time, had not shown the same speed potential as freestyle and backstroke. Furthermore, the orthodox breaststroke had never really been a popular event in the USA, whereas in many European countries it had been revered as the traditional stroke as well as the first stroke taught to beginners; in fact it was known as "the school stroke" in the Netherlands, and was reputed to be the only stroke swum in Iceland.

Historical analysis shows that American officials appear to have overlooked the one important fact that, although the new butterfly stroke complied with the breaststroke rules, by no stretch of the imagination could it honestly have been described as the breaststroke that had been the traditional stroke in Europe for three centuries. At best, it could have been said that it was either "half-breaststroke" or "half- butterfly," take your pick.

Surely, some official at the time would have had the sense to hold up a hand and say: "Hey, stop! Can't you see that this stroke is not breaststroke? Don't you realize that what we have here is a completely different stroke altogether? It's obviously the result of a loophole in the rules, and it would be grossly unfair to take advantage of it. This new stroke should be recognized as such, and given its own set of rules."

Teofilo Ildefonso, an early underwater breaststroker pulled through to the hips and recovered the arms forward under the water.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © ISHOF

At the same time, to preserve the intended form of the traditional breaststroke, wise officials could have prevented a lot of trouble by closing the obvious loophole in the breaststroke Rule 34, by simply adding a few words that said: "The hands must be kept under the water surface and recovered forward from the breast," But the wisdom of hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Butterfly at Berlin Olympics

On March 19th, 1934, the United States AAU wrote to the FINA Bureau seeking an "urgent opinion" on whether "swinging or throwing the arms instead of the rounded and outward sweep of the arms under the surface of the water was legal or not." This was obviously an initial move to have the new butterfly-breaststroke accepted at the forthcoming 1936 Berlin Olympics. The immediate result was that the FINA Hon. secretary "owing to urgency" cabled his "personal opinion" that "according to the existing rule such swinging or throwing of the arms was legal."

In 1936 FINA announced that "the 'so-called' butterfly breaststroke, including an over-water-recovery of the arms was not contrary to Rule 34 of the FINA and that it would be permitted at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games."

However, it seems that this was, in effect, only a temporary permission to use the stroke in the 1936 Olympics, because FINA's announcement warned that the meeting of the FINA Congress of the Federation, scheduled for August 16th, 1936, after the Games had ended, would be asked to decide whether or not the "butterfly stroke" is desirable.

Apparently, even at this early stage, some swimmers were either accidentally or intentionally inserting a dolphin kick on completion of the breaststroke kick, because FINA saw fit to accompany its announcement with a quaintly-worded statement that swimmers "using the fish-tail leg drive constituted by a downward whip of the legs in a short quick flip after the completion of the rounded and outward sweep of the feet, being contrary to the aforesaid Rule, will be prohibited. Any swimmer using it will be disqualified." After the Berlin Olympics ended, FINA resolved, on August 16th, 1936, that the "so-called butterfly-stroke" be admitted in international competitions under breaststroke Rule 34.

1938-1946 -- Alterations to Breaststroke Rule 34

In 1938, two years after the Berlin Olympics, and a year before the outbreak of World War II, what was to become known as "The Breaststroke Saga" or the "Saga of Rule 34," started in earnest when Mr Drigny of France proposed that the butterfly stroke be prohibited. After a long debate, the motion was supported by 4 votes out of 7, but because technical rule changes required a two-thirds majority, the motion wasn't carried.

At the same meeting, on the request by Mr Max Ritter, representing the AAU, it was unanimously resolved to prohibit up and down leg movements in the vertical plane.

In October 1946 a new section (f) was added to Breaststroke Rule 34:
"A swimmer must swim, when on the surface, either orthodox (conventional) breaststroke or butterfly stroke throughout the race. These strokes must not be alternated." This muddle-headed ruling, in essence, confirmed that something was radically wrong, and that basically, the two strokes belonged in different events.

End of partone. To be continued.

The Author gratefully acknowledges the access to FINA archival material, and permission to reprint certain excerpts therefrom, provided by Director Preston Levi, The Henning Library at the International Swiming Hall of Fame, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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