The Sixth Stroke: Massage and Championship Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Commentary by Michael J. Stott

The origins of massage go back to China more than 3000 years ago. As applied to aquatics, National Team Director Frank Busch first recalls seeing massage therapists on deck at major meets in the mid-70’s.

The University of Florida was among the first colleges to embrace massage. This year, the Gators have employed massage therapist Ricky Ray to take care of their athletes at the men’s NCAA swimming and diving championships in Iowa City. “I love working with swimmers,” says Ray now in his sixth year with the Gainesville school. “I usually start with athletes in late December/early January and work with them through the end of the season.”

These days massage therapists are de rigeur for most any championship-bound squad. They are so important that the University of California has imported four specialists to handle the needs of the defending champions. On hand are a sports massage therapy specialist, a massage therapist, a chiropractor and acupunturist. The quartet’s job is to support swimmers, prevent, address and resolve any issues be they associated with the back, neck, knees, etc.

“Swimmers have specific issues that always seem to surface,” says Edmund Gornay, one of the Cal crew. With breaststrokers the kick seems to exacerbate hip and knee issues. For butterflyers the problems are often associated with the neck, upper back and shoulders; for freestylers and backstrokers, back and shoulders.

“Different swimmers like different touches,” says Gornay. “Some people like deep or light tissue touches, manipulation and or/mobilization. Different practitioners have different touches to which the swimmers respond,” he says. Generally swimmers like light touches prior to swimming and deep tissue touches. In the case of the former “we do what we call a ‘shake and bake.’ We loosen the tissue and warm it up just to get the athletes going.”

Following final swims of the day the practitioners do deep tissue massage, often called a deep flush so swimmers can sleep. “We are trying to get tension out of the muscles, remove the lactic acid and make them feel relaxed before they bed down,” he says. Cal has enough personnel that should athletes require it they can get massages at their hotel especially if there is a delayed physical reaction or they are not sleeping well.

Massage’s version of the polar plunge is the ice bath. “It is used for pain to aid vasal constriction. As the body then warms up it creates the flush and relieves the pain,” says Gornay. As to who gets what “a lot of it depends on athlete preference.”

One swimmer Ray is treating this weekend is Christian-Paul Homer, a senior backstroker. “The massage therapists have taught me a lot about my body,” says the Gator. Fifteen minutes before an event I like to be shaken out, warm my muscles and get ready.” Following a session, be it prelims or finals, Homer religiously warms down 1000 yards, takes a 10-minute ice bath and then gets a 10 minute rubdown.

This weekend the pool adjacent to the main competition, warmup and diving area is chock-a-block with all manner of tables, exercise implements, therapists and wandering athletes. Virtually every team has a therapist present. In many ways it is a human bazaar fife with wandering athletes all looking for a helping hand.