The Fly Finish

In butterfly swimming, there is a reverse alchemy at work that can make silver out of what was destined to be solid gold. We call it “coming in long.” Its image is still fresh in our minds from the Olympics in Seoul:

“They now have ten meters to swim! , going for the gold! Biondi looks like he’s going to take it to the wall! And . . . uh . . . Nesty! takes it at the very last moment.”

On the instant replay, we were told:

“Biondi’s going to take two more strokes, and he coasts from here in. He coasted three meters! Look at that glide!”

Can there be an emptier feeling in all of swimming? You take a last, forceful stroke, slicing your hands toward the finish. Then, as if to tease this moment of triumph, the wall retreats from your expectant fingertips.

What makes the fly finish such risky business is the great stride length of the butterfly arm stroke, as the hands sail forward to bite off long stretches of water. In Seoul, Biondi took but 21 strokes to devour the final 50 of his 100 fly, versus 36 in freestyle.

But must the fly finish always be a crap shoot? Not at all. Adjustments can be made to minimize the chance of poor timing. And if by fate you “come in long,” there are skills you can hone to keep your finish golden.

AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION. There are three techniques that can be used to avoid an ill-timed finish.

The conventional method is to sight the finish from above water on the last breathing stroke, then stay on target as you charge the wall on the final few strokes. You learn to gauge the distance, to develop a feel for coming in long or coming in even.

If long, you shorten up the pulling pattern, creating three shorter strokes where there would otherwise be two. The short strokes are like those used in the 200 fly. There is less elbow extension on the upsweep, and the hands exit nearer the waist than the hips.

Another method is the one Matt Biondi used in Seoul on the medley relay, where he again took 21 strokes in the final 50, but nailed the finish. He made the adjustment, not in his stroke count, but in his butterfly submarine.

The “submarine” is the dolphin kick-out from the turn, with the arms held in streamlined position. What Biondi did was to extend the distance of his submarine by slowing the tempo of his submarine kicks. The first of his 21 strokes began farther down the pool, which put his finish stroke flush on the wall.

A third technique, which may well be the speediest, is to adjust the number of submarine kicks. Some fliers, like Biondi, use two kicks off the turn, while others, like Melvin Stewart, take four or five. Two kicks give roughly the same distance as a full butterfly stroke. So, if your tendency is to come in long, just add one kick to your submarine to make up the difference.

If fate has it that you do finish long, use the following rule of thumb: Avoid a partial arm stroke, kick all the way in, keep the head down, and follow the “wave.”

The path of the hands should follow the natural wave-like path of the stroke. If you finish just a little long, the hands will drive toward the wall on the downward slope of the wave. If you come in longer, the hands will begin sweeping upward. Staying on the wave is a kind of follow-through motion that helps to preserve momentum into the wall.

Matt’s finish in Seoul may be the most second- guessed fly finish in the history of swimming. My own humble view is that he may have been correct not to take another stroke. His final stroke appears to carry him closer to the wall than the distance of his stride length, which is considerable. Another stroke may have been partial. And taking a partial stroke has been shown to be slower than kicking into the wall.

What actually may have cost Biondi the race is that by lifting his head just before making the touch, he increased his rate of deceleration into the wall. When the head lifts, the legs drop, because the swimmer’s center of gravity shifts toward the feet. Also, the face is flatter than the top of the head and produces an extra frontal resistance.

The finishes of all the strokes, especially butterfly, are discrete skills that await your attention. It does seem at times that no matter what your level of progress, there is always the next level to consider. But stay positive. In its very complexity lies the beauty of swimming as an unending challenge to the dedicated athlete.