Watch and Learn

Chris Derks is a pretty OK swimmer — course-record holder and four-time winner of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, 2004 MIMS champion, competitor in numerous pro races, and owner of an 8:32 English Channel crossing in 2001.

Yesterday Chris posted a video of his English Channel swim to the Marathon Swimmers Forum. It’s a quirky video – 30 minutes long, with random cuts to other races, and ending in the middle of a conversation (apparently Chris plans to upload the rest separately) – but I enjoyed it quite a lot. Chris is one of the best in the business, and it’s a rare treat to see him in action. Also, I dig his taste in music.

Check it out:

A few of my favorite parts:

  • 0:35 – Cool postcard shot of the marathon swimmer and… is that a battleship?!
  • 0:50-3:37 – Interview with Chris. Background & motivations. “I still want to race against kids who are half my age, and beat them…beat them hard.”
  • 3:38-5:47 – Nearly indecipherable interview with his coach. Chris is training in the end lane (a.k.a. the traditional “animal lane” for old-school distance swimmers).
  • 3:53-5:08 – That was a 1:15 LCM split!
  • 6:16 – In Dover. Spectacular usage of The Who’s “Eminence Front”
  • 8:03 – The pre-Maxim era?
  • 8:47 – “On the morning of the swim, the weather was good, and the water was glass.”
  • 10:20 – Chris agrees with me that running into the water is the best way to begin a channel swim.
  • 10:55 – “Mötley Crüe’s ‘Kick Start My Heart’ provided the necessary adrenaline to keep Chris psyched for a long day ahead.”
  • 13:00 – Master class on feeding from a boat. The gold standard.
  • 18:19 – “Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire!” Great channel song.
  • 19:57 – How to feed from a kayak in less than 4 seconds. Watch and learn, people! (From the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.)
  • 21:53 – Chris Greene Lake cable swim. Wow, he’s a lot faster than those Masters swimmers.
  • 22:40 – Meanwhile, back in the Channel…

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Besides Chris’ spectacular feeding technique, I also want to briefly discuss his stroke. There’s some good multi-angle footage from about 15:22 to 15:45, going into and out of a feed.

It’s not a symmetrical stroke. He breathes unilaterally to the right; he rotates slightly more in this direction, resulting in a slight swinging motion on his left (non-breathing) arm; he splashes a bit on his hand entry; his kick is a sort of raggedy four-beat; his tempo a metronomic 67 strokes per minute.

It’s not a pretty, dainty stroke. But make no mistake: It’s a devastatingly effective stroke for open water and marathon distances. A powerful stroke — a rhythmic stroke. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a thing of beauty.

Some schools of swim technique aim for grace, symmetry, smoothness, and lack of splashing. And I get why some people value these things – especially beginners. But they have little to do with speed or endurance – and those are the things I value.

I’m not saying you should imitate Chris’ stroke. Chris’ stroke is precisely adapted to his own body, his own strengths – even his own personality. Chris Derks swims like Chris Derks. Sun Yang swims like Sun Yang. Janet Evans swims like Janet Evans. Your mileage may vary.

For what it’s worth, I swim quite a lot like Chris. Check it out. Unilateral breathing to the right; arm-swing on the left; raggedy 4-beat kick. It’s uncanny, actually.

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