The Evolution of the Crawl Stroke – An Australian Perspective by Forbes Carlile (1996)


INTRO: Forbes Carlile was a member of the British Empire in 1977. That same year, he also received the Queens Jubilee Medal. He became an honoree of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977 and in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1988. He was the Australian Team Coach at the Olympic Games in London 1948, in Melbourne 1956, and in Moscow 1980. In addition, he became the Scientific Advisor in Rome 1960. Coach Carlile was the Head Coach at the World Championships in Belgrade (1973) and at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland (1950). Coach Carlile has been a life member of the Australian Swimming Coaches Association since 1984. He was elected Master’s Coach of the Year in 1977 and he received the Australian Swimming Coaches Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to Swimming in 1990, and in 1995. He received these awards for his direct funding for Swimmers, for teaching and coaching, and for his anti-doping activities. Coach Carlile has been a life member of Ryde Swimming Club since 1967. In addition, since 1987 he has been a life member of the Carlile Swimming Club. Some of his professional accomplishments include Olympic Medalists, World Record Holders, and a Gold World Championship Medalist. Among his Individual World Record Holders are John Bennett, Judy-Joy Davies, Terry Gathercole, Shane Gould, Karen Moras, Gail Neall, Jenny Turrall and Brian Wilkinson. At the Olympic Games he led his athletes to a total of five Gold Medals, four Silver Medals, and three Bronze Medals. Among his Gold Medal Olympians are John Davies, Shane Gould, and Gail Neall. Mr. Carlile has been a speaker at many clinics and is recognized and respected worldwide.

As briefly as possible I want to provide the background for what I shall soon show you on imperfect videotape.

Forty years ago, more like 50, 1 commenced pursuing an interest in the development of crawl technique. The story has been told many times of how the crawl stroke as a competitive technique almost certainly can be traced to a race In the Bronte rock pool in Sydney in 1898, where South Sea islander Alick Wickham swam in a 10 years and under 66 yards handicap event and astonished onlookers with his unusual style of swimming. It was a double overarm, with his woolly head held high and legs thrashing vigorously in the vertical plane. Through the mid 1800’s, first the breaststroke and then the breaststroke on the side, later again with one arm over the water, the sidestroke was the favored racing style for nearly 50 years.

John Trudgen at the Lambeth Baths in London in 1873 became the fastest sprinter of his time with his overarm action, swimming flat on his chest with a horizontal breaststroke kick. However this was a racing stroke successful only over short distances. Most continued to swim sidestroke.

The so-called Trudgen stroke, with one knee drawn up, was modified very successfully by Australian F.C.V “Freddy” Lane in the 1890’s with the straightening of both legs, and the use of the scissor-kick in a sweeping, narrow leg action, a major move in streamlining.

Resistance was effectively cut down. It was hailed as a marvelous effort when Lane won the NSW mile championship using this double overarm all the way. Lane, winner of the 200m event at the Paris Olympics (1900), was then the most successful exponent of the double overarm at all distances up to the mile.

Enter Alick Wickham, the colored son of a white Island Trader, from Roviana in British Samoa, and the birth of a competitive technique which was soon to be known as the crawl stroke.

The legs beat in the vertical plane. This was something new. Dick Cavill studied young Wickham carefully when he swam at Sydney Cove, and soon became the fastest swimmer of his era. In 1902 known as “Splash” Cavill during his tour of England he soon conquered Freddy Lane who went into retirement at the age of twenty.

Dick Cavill’s brother, Syd, in 1898, took the crawl stroke to the Olympic Club in San Francisco and within two years Americans were swimming a crawl stroke better than the Australians.

The remarkable New Yorker, Charles Daniels improved on the Australian method becoming the greatest swimmer of his generation, winning the Olympic 100m in 1908. With most distance swimmers, the crawl kick was wedded to the scissor kick and the stroke, was erroneously called the “Trudgen”. This composite double-overarm technique was used successfully for another 20 years. Andrew “Boy” Chariton was a good example with a straight legged scissor kick of the so-called Trudgen stroke. But there was no drawing up of either knee. Many Australians based in Sydney led by Cecil Healy, stylized the stroke into the Australian 2-beat, making TWO vigorous kicks of the legs with each arm cycle.

With knees bent in the vertical plane to nearly 90 degrees the feet thrashed down on the water twice to each cycle of the arms. It was a “natural” action timed as in walking, opposite arms and legs moving together. It was accepted by Australians as the way to swim the crawl. But it proved to be a dead end and in Australia it can be said to have held up progress despite claiming a number of top swimmers amongst its exponents. Fanny Durack and Mine Wiley swam the stylized Australian Crawl in finishing first and second in the first ever women’s Olympic swimming event, the 100m freestyle at Stockholm in 1912.

The Australian Crawl was the most used style of crawl swimming during Australia’s first “golden age” from 1905 to 1912 but with the emergence of only a few exceptions it hailed a slump in Australian standards through until the 1950s.

Most of the video clips I will show you necessarily come from the relative modern era of swimming. They cover a span of some 70 years from the 1920’s.

You will see demonstrated the result of the flawed “science” which taught that by holding the head high the body could skim along in a hydroplaning position. It seemed to make good sense.

This concept, so well typified by Johnny Weissmuller, combining the heavy, continuous leg action, died hard.

We shall see some demonstrations of how it was believed, by the Americans in the 1950’s, that the long lever (the straight arm pull) should be used and how the regular, very vigorous 6-beat kick was reckoned the ideal to be aimed at.

We were misled by the apparently hugely successful crawl-stroke of Weissmuller and by the Japanese of the 1930’s with their powerful incessant kicking. Australians added a long glide on each arm and reckoned that this was the way to swim. Australian Robin Biddulph was a good example of the “Japanese crawl stroke”. The swimmers with the “broken tempo” kick, as I called it, were generally corrected by coaches for years.

Australian standards in the late 1930’s, corresponding with my embryo competitive days in swimming were abysmal. We copied the Americans, we copied the Japanese. In 1936 at the Berlin Olympics Australia had only one finalist, and he finished seventh. By 1948 however, in London, our Australian team was good enough to win a hand-full of Olympic medals with John Marshall, Judy Joy Davies and Nancy Lyons. But in Helsinki 4 years later with the exception of John Davies’ gold medal in the 200m breaststroke Australia won no other medals and had only two finalists. Then came Australia’s home Olympics in Melbourne. There was huge progress, a transformation, especially in crawl stroke swimming –first, second, and third in both the men’s and women’s 100m freestyle, and winners of every freestyle event. There was a haul of 8 gold medals, seven for freestyle, and David Theile’s backstroke win.

How did this transformation come about in the space of two Olympic Games? Was it the benefit of competing in front of home crowds? Was it Australia’s advanced age-group system at the time or was it due to shaving down? Did we use better science? I certainly believe that our adoption of the principle of interval training was important.

Perhaps it was caused in part by all of these things, but I suggest that the main reason we swam faster in freestyle and in men’s backstroke was because we all but broke away from overseas influences and our swimmers demonstrated, in my view, better techniques.

When you look at the videos of our 1956 crop, at Dawn Fraser, Jon Henricks, Murray Rose, and David Theile I believe the good techniques will become evident. This segment of the video I took with my 16mm Bolex movie camera between 1956 and 1960.

In the 1960’s there came an era of four-beat and two-beat cross over kicking techniques, adopted by both successful Americans and Australians. In sprinting “broken tempos” become more evident.

In another sequence in my video we see our three Ryde Club (Sydney) girls. Karen Morns, Shane Gould and Jenny Turrell who throughout most of the 1970’s held many world records at distances from 100m to 1500m.

My part in the development of these girls’ techniques was I believe in recognizing that for many swimmers a strong, regular, “6 beat” leg action was not conducive to their fastest swimming. My catch-cry was–“the legs must not call the tune but be subservient to the arms”.

Karen Mores who once held the 400 and 800m world records was a natural 2-beater. She was developed since the age of 7 in my wife Ursula’s group. Karen was never “messed up” by being taught to swim the 6 beat, the accepted wisdom of the day. Shane Gould came to me a strong “6 beat” kicker, a very good 13 year who I saw fail to make the 1970 Commonwealth Games team. She moved from Brisbane to Sydney.

I studied a video of her racing in the trials at the Drummoyne Pool (Sydney) and we quickly changed her into a regular 2-beater. She never varied from this technique in making world records from the 1500m down to the 100m. The last girl in the trio was Jenny Turrell who was a world record holder at 800m and 1500m. She was another pure two-beater. With a very high elbow in the pull and a high tempo. The leg action of all these girls is certainly NOT the original Australian crawl. It is a much more streamlined kicking action with only minimal knee bend.

There have been many great contributions made to swimming by Dr. James Counsilman but I believe the most influential and useful by far has been “Doc’s” concept of “elbows up” as early in the arm pull as possible.

You will notice in my video in chronological order, the three girls, world record holders– first Karen Moree, followed by Shane Gould, and then Jenny Turrell, the elbows became higher in the arm pull, with hands and forearms more and more involved In the “push back”, an action we see effected so very well by Kieren Perkins to whom the last sequence in the video is dedicated. Strokes became more powerful and longer.

Australians for more than 30 years have tended towards an arm recovery we have called a “boomerang” action. I am not saying that this recovery was best, but it was certainly evident in Australia’s outstanding bunch of the 1950’s and after.

Many 2-beaters like Australia Stephen Holland (with a best 1500m time of just over 15m-02 seconds which is still very competitive in Olympic finals today), have had high stroke ratings and have not stretched out in front for a “long stroke.” Holland as you will see was a pure 2-beater.

However there have been great swimmers in recent years who have combined a good stretch out followed almost immediately by the high elbow arm pull following the initial stretch. They had high elbows, chronologically with their pulls starting closer to the surface. Perhaps we became better coaches. Particularly if the swimmer is long and lean and has an effective kick when the body is on the side, this seems to me clearly to be the direction to take in crawl technique. Kieren Perkins is a very good example.

But of course there is much more to Kieren Perkins than his freestyle technique. There is one other visible attribute of Kieren Perkins. As he “rolls” around the horizontal axis he lies very “flat” on the vertical axis, at an angle measured by bio mechanists of only between 2 and 5 degrees. Imagine the advantage over any rival with the angle of the body from the horizontal of say 6 or 7 degrees or more and have even much greater angles than this. You need a very powerful “engine” to make up for this.

The quality of my pictures, you will see, is generally not good. The first short sequence of Freddy Lane was taken nearly 50 years ago. This together with the underwater shots of the Americans of the 1950’s have very much suffered the ravages of time. I apologize for this.

The video starts with a glimpse of Freddy Lane, winner at Paris 96 years ago, in action. He was, as has been said, the first to very successfully use the narrowed straight leg action of the scissor kick. I regard the snap of the scissor kick of the elf-like Freddy Lane during the last five years of the last century as a landmark in the development of freestyle.

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