By Mike Gustafson | Thursday, June 2, 2016
Backstroke is an exercise in guessing. When upside-down, facing the sky (or the ceiling rafters), a backstroker must guess: Where the wall is, where the flags are, where competitors are, if they are moving faster or slower in comparison, lane spacing, sun / bright light location, and the mysterious, scary, looming unforeseen.
It is unlike other strokes: guessing demands trust. A backstroker must trust the flags will come. A backstroker must trust their lane spacing is correct. A backstroker must trust their count from the flags to the wall is precisely three-strokes-then-flip. A backstroker must trust that last reach to the wall — the full extension, fingertips scratching and searching, desperately.
This trust is not magically handed from the swimming gods to aspiring backstrokers. It is earned and deserved through a career-long pursuit, through misjudgments and over-analyzation, through smacked heads on gutters, through sweat, through tears, through lung-busting kick-outs and hand-hitting bruises. In no other stroke does trust play such a key factor, such a guiding force.
Trust and faith. The backstroker’s secret (and necessary) weapon.
Backstroke has long been the gray swan of swimming. The ugly duckling stroke that is beautiful in its own light, special in that swimmers cannot see trajectories and must trust placements of flags and lights and dents in the ceiling tiles and in their blinded lane trajectory. It is a stroke that is rarely conquered by the inexperienced. The upstart teenagers who end up dominating the stroke often become aquatic legends (think: Franklin and Coughlin). Those who dominate the stroke tend to be of a certain character. A leader. A water whisperer.
This weekend’s Arena Pro Swim Series at Santa Clara features one spectacular race: The women’s 100m backstroke. The west coast has long been a training Mecca for our nation’s elite sprint backstrokers, from Natalie Coughlin to Elizabeth Pelton to Rachel Bootsma to Missy Franklin (who has moved from California to Colorado). For a while, a Cal-Berkeley backstroke set was on par with an Olympic Trials backstroke final. World champions, NCAA champions, world record holders, and the nation’s best could and would compete against each other, all focusing on that sky above, all spinning arms in the upside-down watery world view, trusting themselves.
What proves significant for this weekend’s race? Hit the wall first, and — three weeks from Trials — that trust builds. You’re trusting your process. You’re trusting your trajectory. You hit the wall first.
Perhaps in no other race this weekend are so many world-elite swimmers competing: Coughlin, Australia’s Emily Seebohm, Minna Atherton and Madison Wilson, Bootsma, Pelton, and more. A victory this weekend won’t mean an automatic birth to an Olympic roster. But it could mean that Trials wall seems like it arrives a little bit faster. Those flags seem to pass a little sooner. It could mean that guesswork becomes more and more an exercise of trust. And at this point, bluntly speaking, there’s little room for guesswork anymore.
This weekend’s Can’t Miss Race features a plethora of backstroke veteran women all eyeing the same podium. To get there, they must essentially compete in a blind vacuum and completely trust their pacing, placement, and training. The 100m sprint backstroke features women who have all experienced various degrees of elite success. Coughlin seeks a return to the Olympic gold medal podium. Bootsma and Pelton seek momentum to defeat Missy Franklin this summer. Australia’s backstrokers seek to wreak havoc on Team USA’s backstroking supremacy.
Who will win?
For now, it’s a guess.