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Article #10 Underwater Swimming
This essential skill is accomplished in a variety of ways, but all of the techniques have some things in common. Let's look first at those things, then at the individual techniques for swimming underwater. All underwater swimming techniques/strokes use strokes or skills with a traditionally underwater recovery. In other words, no one is going to use crawlstroke, backstroke, or butterfly to swim underwater. These strokes all have an above-water arm recovery, and the drag would be prohibitive. Another common element is an elongated pull. For example, both breaststroke and sidestroke have modified, elongated pulls when swam underwater, even though the armstroke is all underwater when swam at the surface. All underwater strokes require a different pitch of the swimmer's hands, to keep pulling him/her down. The more buoyant the swimmer, the more dramatic the upward pitch of the palms, to keep pulling the swimmer down. This makes underwater arm pulls less efficient than those performed at the surface, since the upward pull necessary underwater is not in direct opposition to the desired direction of motion, as it often is at the surface. Some exceptionally buoyant swimmers, particularly those with very high fat/lean ratios have a difficult time with this skill, and struggle to get below the surface; and once there struggle to stay there.
How do you get underwater to start with? There are three primary techniques to submerging and beginning an underwater swim:
* Duck under while holding onto the side of the pool with your legs bent and feet planted against the wall about 3' below the surface. Level your body off with your feet as you duck under and extend your arms into the stream-line position as you push off with both legs. For very buoyant people, you'll immediately begin to go back to the surface. Tuck your chin and angle your body downward as you glide away from the wall. As your glide slows, pull your arms all the way down to your sides in a bent arm pull; pitching your palms backward and upward to pull forward and down at the same time. Begin to kick, and keep your legs angled above you to drive your body forward and down.
* Surface dive to the desired depth, then level off and swim. There are two main surface dives: head-first and feet-first. To perform a head-first surface dive, start by taking a big breath and tucking your head, so it's pointing straight down. Lift your legs above your head, so the weight of your legs drives your body underwater. You can perform this skill by first bending your legs up into a tuck position, then extending them straight up; or by bending only at the waist with your legs straight (pike position). To help you submerge, start with your arms in front of you in the streamline position and as you tuck your head and lift your legs above you, sweep both arms back to your sides to pull you down. As soon as your feet submerge, kick the rest of the way down to the desired depth.
To perform a feet-first surface dive, start by assuming a vertical treading water position. Next, put your arms straight out to the sides and spread your legs into the "splits" position (forward and back). With both arms and legs spread out all the way, kick and pull down as hard as you can to lift your torso high out of the water. When your arms and legs finish the downward stroke and your body is in a "soldier" position with your arms at your sides, point your toes and keep your entire body perfectly straight. Do NOT bend your legs or your waist, or extend your arms to the sides. Any of these are essentially brakes, and will stop your descent. Let yourself submerge in the soldier position. When you slow to a near stop, sweep your arms over your head, with your palms pitched up to push you down farther. Remain perfectly straight, and toes pointed. Now that your arms are above your head, you can use the skill we covered in Article #9 - torpedo scull. With your body still straight and toes still pointed, torpedo scull (wave your hands overhead, palms up) to push yourself down the rest of the way. For very deep feet-first surface dives, you may need to turn over and swim down head-first the rest of the way. Feet-first surface dives are more difficult to master, but are very effective and fast. They're especially useful for our lifeguards when establishing a hold on an unconscious victim underwater, since the victim is typically somewhat vertical in the water and the guard can dive down right behind them already in the correct position to establish the hold and resurface immediately. They're also smart when surface diving into murky water where the bottom conditions are unknown. By keeping your legs straight and NOT kicking, you'll also prevent entanglement in water plants that grow up from the bottom of open water areas. One caution about unknown bottom conditions - NEVER do a head-first dive, and always keep your legs straight, but feet slightly flexed instead of pointed, in case your feet hit a solid object. Here, the rigid soldier position is not as safe, since striking the bottom hard may jar your knees or hips. So, take up the landing shock with your ankles slightly flexed. Your body is very light in the water, and you won't need any knee bend to absorb a soft impact with the bottom. Obviously a pencil jump from a dock or poolside may result in a very rapid descent and could result in a serious injury if the water is not very deep.
Now that we've successfully submerged to the desired underwater swimming depth, let's swim! The most commonly used underwater swimming stroke is modified breaststroke. It's basically the same stroke that competitive swimmers do on breaststroke turns during a race. Instead of the short pull in the shape of a heart that we learned in our breaststroke discussion, use a full pull, all the way to your sides. This stroke has TWO glides. The traditional glide, with your arms in the streamline position, and your body completely stretched out; and a second glide when your arms pull all the way back. The timing for this underwater breaststroke is: glide (streamline), pull all the way down, glide, recover, kick-glide. Obviously, the "breathe" portion is left out, unless you're a fish! Here, the armstroke recovery is very long, and is underwater, and is in the opposite direction to the desired motion - so, what's my point? Keep it tight against your body and keep your hands in a "slice" position to minimize the drag created by the recovery. Also, use an efficient and streamlined whip kick. The kick should not be wider just because you're submerged. Keep the knees no wider than shoulder width, and flare your feet out as before.
Another good option is a dolphin kick/modified breaststroke hybrid. This technique is a combination of dolphin kick with full undulation as in the butterfly, and the modified breaststroke arms described above. Although a bit challenging to perfect, it is a very smooth and effective stroke underwater; providing excellent propulsion.
A third option is scissors kick/modified breaststroke hybrid. This technique is very similar to the modified breaststroke, with the same timing, only using the scissors kick instead of the whip kick. Some swimmers with no (or poor) whipkicks will scissor kick unintentionally anyway, so this becomes their default underwater stroke. It's also quite effective, but has more drag than the first two, since the scissors kick is so wide.
A fourth option is flutter kick/modified breaststroke hybrid. As you may have guessed, the armstroke is still the same as the modified breastroke, with a continuous flutter kick added. The advantage to this technique is that it takes the least amount of skill to perform. Many swimmers will use this technique intuitively until they've been taught alternatives. Because flutter kick is inherently inefficient, this is not the recommended technique; but it will propel you through the water; thanks mostly to the powerful arm pull. Note that SCUBA divers or snorkelers spend nearly all of their time submerged and use a wide flutter kick almost exclusively. That's because they're wearing very long fins, and the flutter kick makes perfect sense for that application. Since SCUBA divers/snorkelers are often holding a camera, light, speargun, or other equipment, they usually propel themselves only with their kick.
A fifth option is modified sidestroke. Modified sidestroke is not really necessary, but is a commonly used adjustment to the regular sidestroke. Since sidestroke at the surface has all components submerged other than your face, it doesn't need to be modified at all to work underwater. Just hold your breath. However, many swimmers change the arm pattern when swimming it underwater. The leading arm and trailing arms are no longer opposite, but now pull together and recover together; in a reach out and grab the water, then pull it down to your chest motion. The two arms are close together throughout the arm pattern, and the pattern mirrors that of the leading arm's pattern in the traditional stroke. Some swimmers will do this arm pattern by mistake when first learning the sidestroke, since it's easier than the opposition pattern with a leading and trailing arm. The timing for this modified stroke is recover, kick, glide - and the glide is with both arms at your side. This stroke is still performed on the side, as it is at the surface.
The last option is any kick, no armstroke. Swim teams use underwater drills like this every day. Flutter or dolphin kick with arms extended in a streamline position are very common drills; and are often done wearing short fins called "zoomers." Any kick can be used as mentioned above, with arms either extended in a streamline, or at your sides. The problem? Harder to stay down with no arm pull, and may be harder for very buoyant swimmers to perform. Often by tucking your head and bending over at the waist a little, angling your body down, you can stay underwater.
Note: swimming at the surface without taking a breath is NOT THE SAME thing as underwater swimming. This always seemed inherently obvious to me, but I've seen lots of people do this and think they're performing underwater swimming. You must actually be submerged for it to be the correct skill.
One last caution: NEVER swim more than one length underwater. It's not safe. NEVER hyperventilate before swimming underwater to stay down longer. That's very dangerous. You may pass out when attempting to swim underwater too far. Passing out on land is not such a big deal; however passing out underwater is a big deal indeed. Be careful.
Have fun and swim underwater!
Aquatic Center Manager
Eastern Washington University
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