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By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)
BARCELONA, Spain, August 3. EVEN back when the backstroke start platform seemed to be nothing but a rumor, I was in favor of it. Of course, my immediate reaction was swayed by my own personal experiences and the fact that I had a horrible habit of slipping off my start, the worst instance being in the semifinal at the Beijing Olympics. I ended up missing the final by a little under half a second, which, after watching David Plummer tonight, very well could have been the difference between swimming in the final and sitting in the stands.
FINA recently approved the use of the underwater platform for backstroke starts, but there are still some, swimmers included, who are against this decision. No doubt after tonight, David Plummer is not among the nay-sayers.
Plummer earned the fifth seed this morning, posting a 24.91. He was only two and a half tenths behind the leader, and the first of the two Americans: a seemingly comfortable position to move on to the finals, as long as nothing went wrong.
Unfortunately, something did go horribly wrong, and tonight, he slipped off his start–and what a marvelous slip it was–putting him over a body length behind the field right away. Plummer finished the race in dead last at 26.00: his time from prelims would have put him in 7th for tomorrow night’s final.
Plummer fought hard all the way through the race, but could not recover from his botched backstroke dive, and who could blame him? I don’t know if any swimmer could recover from a start like that in the 50, and very few in the 100. Only if you are the best in the world can a major slip like that stop you from moving on to the finals: in other words, only if you are Missy Franklin.
Franklin also noticeably slipped earlier in the meet, in the semifinal of the 100 backstroke. She was about half a second faster on the first 50 in the final compared to her semifinal swim. Even though she did not slip again in the final, this may have forced her to be less aggressive on her start; could a gentler start to save herself a slip been what stopped her from getting closer to that world record? Only in backstroke does a swimmer have to choose between attacking their start and holding back to avoid disaster.
Clearly, both Plummer and Franklin would be supporters of the starting ledge for backstroke. Although the argument has been made that this ledge gives an advantage to less talented swimmers–akin to the argument made about the polyurethane suits–slips by two high ranked and experienced swimmers would prove that this mishap can happen to everyone, no matter what their level. The fact that Franklin slipped proves that this is not an issue of talent, but one of luck: like your goggle strap breaking as you step onto the blocks.
Slips used to happen on the starting blocks as well, although much less frequently. Now with the platform on the back of the block, freestylers, breaststrokes and butterflyers alike do not have to worry about slipping. It is high time that backstrokers joined their ranks, and stopped having to worry about being “unlucky” at a very inopportune moment. FINA has definitely made the right call on this decision.
Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M’s first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.
Follow her on twitter @juliah2o