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The Backstroke Turn - Simplified

The "new" backstroke turn is the easiest competitive flip turn to learn - far easier than the freestyle flip turn. In fact, the backstroke turn should be taught as a first step in learning the freestyle turn. When we say "new" turn, we mean the turn that was approved by FINA, the governing body of international swimming, on January 26, 1991, allowing the turn to be initiated from a prone or face down position and eliminating the requirement that a hand touch the wall. The impact on both the USS and Masters swimming community was immediate. During 1992, approximately one-third of the existing Master national backstroke records were broken in the women's age group, and an even greater percentage in the men's age groups. A year later in 1993, after the evolution and refinement of the new technique, over 50% of the existing records were shattered.

But the new backstroke turn is not just for elite competitive swimmers; it is a simple turn that all swimmers can learn. In addition, it is safer because the turn is initiated from the prone position with visualization of the wall rather than blindly from one's back. The turn, once it is learned, also requires less effort than even the conventional grab turn utilized by most fitness and entry level swimmers.

If you have never tried a flip turn before, here's how you can do it step by step:

Step 1:

Find a deep area of the pool, at least 5 feet deep. While in the center of the pool, float on your stomach, arms stretched out in front of you with your palms down. Tuck your chin to your throat and bend at your waist to initiate a somersault. A little dolphin kick here will help you get your hips high and your legs up and over. Remember to blow air out your nose so to prevent water from rushing in as you turn upside-down. Use the palms of your hands to move the water backwards to your side and then quickly reverse the direction of the hands so that both hand push water directly towards your face. This creates sufficient momentum to bring your hips out of the water and past your head. (Diagram/Photo 2) Gently untuck your legs until you are in a layout position on your back looking up at the sky with both arms over your head. Keep streamlined by overlapping your hands one on top of the other or, at minimum, with your index fingers on top of each other with your thumbs interlocking. The important thing is that your arms, elbows and hands are narrow and parallel. This streamline position is important to reduce resistance as you push off the wall (See Step 5).

Congratulations! You've learned the hardest part. Practice another 10 - 20 somersaults before moving on to Step 2.

Step 2:

Move towards the end of the pool. Ideally, position yourself in the center of a lane marked with a black line on the bottom and a "T" target on the wall. Kick in toward the wall on your stomach with both hands in front. As you approach within 4 feet of the wall repeat the movements learned in Step 1. Chances are you will end up on your back with your feet 1 to 2 feet away from the wall. Repeat by initiating your somersault 3 1/2 feet away. . . then 3 . . . then 2 1/2 . . . until your feet encounter the wall at the end of your somersault while your knees are still slightly bent. Practice until you learn the optimal distance from the wall to initiate your turn. We will discuss the push off in Step 5.

Step 3:

Now move outside the flags (about 20 feet from the wall). Kick toward the wall on your back with your left arm next to your left ear and your right arm at your side. As you pass the flags, move your right arm across your body and past your left shoulder to "roll over" onto your stomach while simultaneously pulling through the water with your left arm. 3) Immediately visualize the "T" target on the wall and repeat the movements learned in Step 2 by initiating your somersault at the point that is the optimal distance from the wall for your body size and momentum. Use your right arm to assist in the initiation of the somersault by pushing water backwards towards your leg and then reverse the direction of your hands and push water towards your face as was done in Step 1 and Step 2 and then extend into the streamline position. (Diagram/Photo 4) If you find yourself too far away from the wall, adjust your start point so that you finish the somersault with your feet placed on the wall about 6-9 inches under the surface with your knees still slightly bent. Repeat until you learn the optimal point to begin your "roll over." Practice on both sides so that you can become bi-lateral.

Step 4:

Move out another 5 yards to a point 40 feet from the wall. Begin swimming on your back towards the wall. When you pass the flags and approach the "roll over" point learned in Step 3, bring your arm (right or left) across your body and continue through the movements learned previously. Advanced swimmers at higher speeds will need to roll over sooner as they have more forward momentum than a slower swimmer. Be careful. The rule is that after a "swimmer turns past the vertical, such motion must be part of a continuous turning action . . . ." What this means is that you must time the "roll over" stroke so that it leads into the somersault without excessive gliding or kicking into the wall. Be patient! Trial by error is the only way to develop the correct timing. And remember: never look for the walls while still on your back. The flags should key you as to when to roll over and you then can key off the "T" target on the wall to adjust your somersault. When you are at a new pool the flags could be slightly different than at your home pool so check them out during warm-up by practicing several turns. Also be aware of outdoor pools; winds will sometimes change the positions of the flags.

Step 5:

With practice, the momentum created by the dolphin kick and hand movement initiating your somersault should allow you to land aggressively at the wall. Flex your toes as you plant your feet for extra power as you push off. As mentioned above, your feet should be planted on the wall between 6 -9 inches under the surface of water to allow you to push off under the turbulence that trails any swimmer. The still deep water is also perfect for dolphining off the walls. The dolphin kick should be initiated at the point where the momentum from the push off begins to slow. The dolphin kick is a whole body kick from your finger tips down to your toes 5). Even the poorest kicker will reach the 10 meter mark with much less effort than backstroke swimming. At minimum, the beginning backstroker should kick at least 5 dolphin kicks on the start and at least 3 on every subsequent turn. You must stop the dolphin and start the scissors kick just before your legs break the surface at the end of your first pull. As efficient as the dolphin kick is when deep, is just as inefficient as soon as it hits surface turbulence. Practice the exchange from dolphining to scissors during workout swims. Don't be lazy.

Tip for the Advanced Swimmer: Should you try and go the full 15 meters (16.4 yards) allowed underwater before surfacing? This becomes a personal question. Ever since we saw IM World record holder Jesse Vasallo swim the first 100 in a 200 backstroke with a total of 12 arm strokes (kicking 85 total yards underwater at the 1983 USS National Championships) we have been convinced that staying under water is an advantage to most Master swimmers. However 15 meters is difficult for most swimmers to sustain in a 200 backstroke. Our general rule of thumb is 15 meters in a very relaxed stage and then 5 kicks every turn thereafter. You will have to be in shape to make the last few turns. A nose clip does help you keep the water out. Give it a try but practice in workouts before trying it in a competition.

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