How Much Is a Dolphin Kick Worth? Or, Much Ado About Nothing?

By Phillip Whitten

PHOENIX, February 6. LAST year, when FINA changed the breaststroke rule to allow one dolphin kick after the start and each turn of a race, critics charged that it would devalue all the former records, especially the short course marks.

The rule was enacted, reluctantly, in response to videos showing that Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima had taken dolphin kicks in his gold medal swims in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events at the 2003 World Championships and the 100 breast at the 2004 Olympic Games.

In fact, Kitajima was by no means the only world-class breaststroker using the then-illegal kick, which was thought to give the user an advantage of perhaps as much as half a second per kick (depending upon how powerful his kick was). On one of the videos that shows Kitajima (in lane 5) using an illegal dolphin kick in the 100-meter breaststroke in Athens (he did not use dolphin kicks in his winning 200-meter swim), the viewer can also see Ukraine’s Oleg Lisogor taking a similar kick in lane 2. Every year, this observer has seen numerous swimmers at the NCAA Championships taking humungous dolphin kicks. The infraction is rarely called.

On its face, the new FINA rule seemed to many to be an effective, if unfortunate, solution to a perennial problem, one that was exacerbated because officials could really only see what the swimmers in the outside lanes were doing, allowing the swimmers in the middle lanes to get away with illegal movements. (In fact, at last summer’s USMS long course nationals, one swimmer who was seeded first in his age group, swam an entire 50 meters breaststroke using only the dolphin kick — he did not take a single breaststroke kick. He won a very close race and was not DQ’ed, though several swimmers in outside lanes who had taken incidental dolphin kicks on the start were deeked.)

The new rule, however, is unlikely to be a real solution to the problem that led to its passage in the first place. It allows the swimmer to take one dolphin kick legally, but he still has the opportunity to take another one or two illegally. (The ultimate solution is for the judges to utilize underwater cameras.)

Meanwhile, since the new rule has gone into effect, we were curious as to how much faster it made world-class breaststrokers. I figured we were talking somewhere in the two- to three-tenths of a second range. That’s per kick. So, I estimated, a swimmer in a long course 100 breast might go 0.4 to 0.6sec faster; in the 200, he’d be able to double that advantage to 0.8 to 1.2sec per 100. In short course events, the advantage would be twice what it was in long course.

Thus far, however, the results at major meets do not seem to support that conjecture. On the World Cup circuit, only Oleg Lisogor has set a short course world mark, lowering his own standard by three-hundredths of a second in the 50 breast. And his former record was set three or four years ago. Few other top breaststrokers have recorded PRs.

So it was that we looked forward to Australia’s Commonwealth Games Trials, figuring that Leisel Jones had a good shot at both the 100 and 200-meter world records – even before the rule change. With the rule change, using our 2- to 3-tenths per lap estimate, we estimated Jones would go between 1:05.6 and 1:05.8 for the 100 and between 2:20.5 and 2:20.9 for the double century.

In fact, she swam 1:05.71 and 2:20.54.

Those swims seemed to provide an initial validation to our estimates. But we decided to ask the Lethal One, herself, how much help she felt she derived from the dolphin kick – for example, how much farther and/or faster was her breakout?

So we asked Steve Thomas, our chief Australian correspondent, to pose the question to Leisel. Her reply blew our theory out of the water.

“I don’t use the dolphin at all,” she said. “It doesn’t suit my kick.”

So, there!

It’s back to the drawing board.

Actually, it should be fairly easy to get a statistically valid minimum (mean) figure for the dolphin effect by comparing, for example, year-to-year improvement in the 100 and 200 breast at the NCAAs in past years with the improvement from 2005 to 2006. Men and women should be done separately.

It would be ironic, indeed, if there were no measurable advantage on the breaststroke start and turn to the still controversial dolphin kick.

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