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Karin Helmstaedt

American butterfly sensation Misty Hyman came to Gšteborg to try her original technique on the world, and while it didn't get her the gold she had hoped for, she had every journalist and many others straining to get a better view of her controversial stroke.

The 18 year old from Phoenix, Arizona, has been swimming butterfly with a long underwater kick - what she calls an "extended breakout" - since 1993. But after working for several years on the technique used by world record-holder Denis Pankratov, Mel Stewart and others, Hyman took things a step further last year.

Inspired by an article in Scientific American on the mechanics of fish swimming, Hyman's coach, Bob Gillett, suggested that she turn onto her side to better mimic the way a fish propels itself through the water.

"We basically looked at why fish are so efficient," Hyman explains. "The scientists who wrote the article built a mechanical fish and studied the vortices produced by a fish's tail."

The upward and downward motion of the feet and legs in a traditional dolphin kick produce similar vortices, in opposing directions, which help propel the swimmer through the water. The vortices act like a current, colliding with the surface of the water and the bottom of the pool, thereby creating more turbulence and resistance for the swimmer.

"We figured that by doing a dolphin kick on my side and producing the current in a sideways direction, there would be much more space around me (from wall to wall) for the current to travel and lose force," says Hyman. "It's called a fish-kick, and it feels like it's more efficient."

Her spectacular world record performance (58.29) at the Canadian Open in December seemed to support that observation. While the technique was difficult to learn, with the main problem being to remain in a straight line, after more than a year of practice Hyman says it feels natural.

In a short course butterfly race Hyman takes only one stroke on the first 25 metres. Ideally, she takes seven strokes on all subsequent lengths in the 100, as compared to ten strokes in the 200. As to the controversial nature of her stroke, Hyman defends her case well.

"I feel like there is such potential to go faster under water," she says, "and that with the applications to freestyle, we could take swimming to a new level."

She explains, "I'm not six feet tall, and for me to compete, I have to do it the best way for me. Skill and innovation were what got me to this level. My coach and I developed this and we're not breaking any rules. In fact, lots of people are doing the underwater. I think it would be a shame if they changed the rule (to limit the distance of the underwater kick) but if they did I would just have to change my training."

Perfecting the fish-kick was key to her success
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

At present Hyman works out a majority of butterfly, with a lot of underwater and monofin training. She disagrees that underwater swimming takes away from the sport on a visual level. "I think it's really exciting to see who is going to come up ahead!"

Two weeks before Gšteborg, 15-year-old Ayari Aoyama of Japan swam the 100 butterfly - also with extended breakouts - in a world record time of 58.24. Hyman mused that her own record had been so short-lived that she had had little time to get used to the idea before losing it.

But while Aoyama's record awaited ratification, Hyman's record was shattered by the first four finishers in the Swedish final - the gold and silver medallists swimming the race in the traditional above-water fashion. In fact, two world records were established in the same race: Hyman's first 50 was a blistering 26.55, while her teammate, veteran Jenny Thompson, posted a startling 57.79. Hyman managed a best time of 57.95 to take the bronze. Not bad.

When asked how she felt about the underwater swimming, Thompson commented, "It used to make me a bit uncomfortable because they get such a lead. But I know it hurts them in the end because of the lactate buildup in the muscles. I've had a lot of success swimming on top of the water, and although I have started to do a longer underwater off the start, I'll never be an underwater swimmer."

Hyman's comment on lactate buildup was, "Given my training, I don't think it's a problem. I've done 3000 metres butterfly in training with ten kicks off every turn the whole way. I think I might have been a bit nervous here."

Despite the nerves and the disappointments, Hyman was a sterling example of American charm in Gšteborg, with an uneraseable smile and an unquenchable enthusiasm for the competition. "I'm just really happy to be here!" she beamed.

Because there have certainly been obstacles. Hyman, who started swimming at the age of six to help her chronic asthma, discovered two months ago that she also suffers from numerous food allergies. She is now extremely careful about what she eats, adding, "I've brought a lot of my own food (to Sweden). I've cut out eggs, wheat, and dairy products, and I really have noticed a difference since I stopped eating them."

Meticulous and methodical, despite her bubbly exterior, Hyman has her game plan. After Sweden she heads home for her high school graduation in May. Then her sights are set on qualifying for the Pan Pacific Championships. The fall will find her at Stanford University, the old stomping grounds of rival Thompson. She plans to study International Business, a decision that she says was probably motivated by swimming.

"I love to travel, and swimming has opened so many doors for me," she says. "I've had so many experiences. I just turned 18 at the end of March, and I've already been so many places!"

Wherever Hyman turns up next, you'll likely spot the smile first.

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