Let the Record be Broken
Day 3 of the Fina World Championships was already heating up to be an exciting day, with Adam Peaty lowering the World Record in the 50 Breast in prelims, and again in the semi-final. With a WR already on the books for the day, we head into the Womens 100 Backstroke, hoping for another.
The current womens 100 backstroke record was the longest standing record in women’s swimming, having been set in 2009 in Rome during the supersuit era. Heading into today’s event, Canadian Kylie Masse was poised to break that record, posting a time .06 off the WR in the semi-final.
The race wasn’t over yet though; Masse had some major competition to contend with. Kathleen Baker, the Silver medalist in Rio, was looking to seize the opportunity to take the gold, with Rio gold medalist Katinka Hosszu scratching this year. Emily Seebohm was also looking for a podium moment, having fell just short at Rio. With a WR ready to be broken and a strong field all aiming for the podium this was shaping up to be an exciting race.
As we dig into the numbers, immediately a curiosity comes to light. There seems to be two distinct styles being utilized in this race. 1st, 2nd, 7th and 8th place finishers all raced a faster stroke rate with a shorter DPS, while those in places 3rd through 6th raced with longer, stronger strokes, getting more distance from each.
Both strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the slower, stronger stroke will conserve energy further into the event, but is only valuable if the athlete is able to produce the speed to match. Olivia Smoliga is a prime example of this, finishing in 4th place. She registered almost the lowest stroke count, the fastest speed, and the second highest DPS in the field throughout the race. However, her stronger, more efficient stroke was never quite able to reach the speed of the top three finishers, leaving her in the lurch for a podium position. If she can work on speeding up her long, strong strokes – taking potentially 1-2 more per length – she would be better positioned to challenge those at the the top of field.
Conversely, swimming a shorter, faster stroke works wonderfully if you have the endurance to maintain it throughout the race. This point is proven for us if we examine both Kathleen Dawson and Kylie Masse's performance together. Both swam 35 strokes, their speed only .01s apart. Masse also posted a .8s faster stroke rate, and was able to move slightly faster with a .05s better DPS in the first half. This isn't enough of a gain to explain the difference between a gold medal and 8th place though. The big difference there was Dawson's inability to maintain this momentum through the second half of the race. They both increased their stroke rate in the second half, however Masse was able to produce a stroke rate, speed and DPS to match, while the wheels seemingly fell off for Dawson, who drastically lost speed and DPS. To close this gap, Dawson should work on either increasing her endurance to sustain the faster, more frequent strokes, or slow down and lengthen her stroke to move further with less effort.
While Kylie Masse, our beloved Canadian record breaker, swam a much faster-paced race than most in the front half, she was able to introduce some of that longer, stronger stroke approach in the second half, pulling from reserves to pull in the record and the gold. She was behind at the end of the first 50m, trailing Baker and Seebohm, and only ahead of Smoliga by .01s. However in the second half, she was able to maintain more speed without increasing her stroke count as much as the others, which ultimately gave her the edge she needed to break the record and secure the gold medal position on the podium.
This race was fascinating not only because our home country broke a long standing record (Go Kylie!), but because we can see the value in really understanding individual strengths and weaknesses through the performances here.
And the rivalry continue
One year ago, during the Rio Olympics, Lilly King and Yuliya Efimova faced off in the womens 100 Breaststroke. It was there a rivalry heated up: Efimova won the first semi-final, and raised a single finger to signal her position as number one. As Efimova waved that finger in victory from the pool, King, who was watching from the waiting room, wagged her finger back saying no — she was having none of it.
King had been very outspoken in Rio about the use of PED’s, arguing that anyone who used them should not be allowed to compete. Efimova had failed multiple drug tests and was only cleared to compete in Rio the day before the start of the games. But complaining about Efimova’s clearance to the games wouldn’t win King the gold; she had to beat Efimova in the pool. And so she did. King proceeded to post the fastest time in the semi’s, followed by a win in the final, and also set an Olympic Record in the process.
This race in Budapest was to be their rematch. Efimova crushed the semi-final, putting up a 1:04.36; 0.01 seconds off the world record and again raising that finger victoriously, while King finished second at 1:04.53. With a World Record hanging in the balance, these rivals were slated to swim side by side in the finals. Would the tension between them affect their performance? Would it drive them to perform better, or would they erupt in an epic meltdown in the pool? Let’s see what the metrics reveal.
In the first 50m of the final, Katie Meili, Efimova and Rūta Meilutytė all swam the same stroke count and had nearly identical speed, but there was a notable difference in DPS between the three. Efimova was unable to generate as much power from each stroke as Meili and Meilutytė, costing her valuable energy. However, her pullout was stronger than the other two, which allowed her to remain in the race at the 50m mark. When examining the differences between Meili and Meilutytė, time underwater also played a role — Meili had a slightly longer pullout, so her stroke rate was higher to produce the same number of strokes on the length, each being slightly shorter than Meilutytė’s.
King, in sharp contrast, swam the worst in terms of technical efficiency. She also registered the shortest time underwater of all competitors. This once again proves that the technically efficient approach doesn’t necessarily translate to a win. King was able to move at a faster speed, executing additional strokes at a faster rate, and retained enough energy to lead the pack as they moved into the final 50m of this race.
As they moved into the second half of this race, Efimova’s strategy shifted to resemble King’s. She drastically increased her stroke count, exceeding King’s by one, and simultaneously dropped her stroke rate and DPS. However, this shift did not work in Efimova’s favour. King was able to maintain a decent stroke efficiency with her higher stroke rate, and also had the stronger pullout of the two, saving her valuable time on the length underwater and helping her take home the victory. Conversely, Efimova’s stroke rate increase was accompanied by a drastic drop in her stroke efficiency. If she is to contest King’s dominance in the future, she’ll need to focus on increasing her DPS to generate more speed.
What is potentially even more interesting than the Efimova/King rivalry, is the power and endurance Meili displayed in the second half to steal the second place position. She was able to maintain the most speed while holding her stroke count much closer to the first length, and posting a much higher DPS than most of her competitors. We say “most” here because there’s a diamond in the rough in this race we haven’t yet acknowledged. Fifth place Jinglin Shi dominated the entire race in terms of DPS and technical efficiency, but was unable to produce enough speed to match her strong stroke. If she can speed up her stroke while maintaining the distance, she will be a real contender in this event.
Overall, this was a great matchup, in terms of both personalities and metrics. We saw that strong pullouts helped overcome shortfalls in stroke efficiency. We acknowledged that strong strokes are only valuable if you can produce the speed to match, and that fast strokes won out over what is technically considered to be more efficient. The moral of this story is that strategy has to be personalized; there is no one-size-fits-all approach which will ensure a win.
Use this link to return to our Fina World Championships home page to see what other races we have analyzed from this event.
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Womens 100m Breaststroke