Backstroke Swimming Race Start Practice
Water splashing everywhere. My heart racing. Got to be first! Everything rides on this race, but my competition is fierce.
Come along in my time machine and let’s go back to early spring 1967 in Wasco, California. We are at the city swimming pool. It is an L shape, with a deep end for diving, and along the other length, 25 yards for competitive swimming.
On this particular day, Coach Clement has declared “tryouts”. Who wants to be the boy or girl chosen to race the 50 yard freestyle? Backstroke? Breaststroke? Butterfly? We have a lot of contenders here. We will decide based on time. “Hey! Freshmen over here for the junior varsity tryouts.”
That was me.
We had a lot of contenders. There were boys trying out for the swim team that I had seldom seen in my summers racing in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) competitions. But they could not be dismissed. These were strong lads with muscles honed in various sports who now wanted to be on the Wasco Union High School TigerShark Swim Team.
But I owned that spot. It was mine. I would not let them have it. Especially backstroke. That was my specialty. It had to be me.
Next up! Backstroke! Who’s trying out?
I jumped to the fore, and after getting the nod, I jumped in the water to take the blocks. Adrenaline was pumping and the nervous energy was surging through my body.
We had some nice new starting blocks that afforded a fantastic grip as you started the race. This was 1967 new, so they were more boxy than the pretty one in the video above. They were welded bits of tubular steel, barebones boxes, so there was no convenient grip for backstroke, just the left and right uprights. And they had some sharp edges.
The rules said only your heels needed to be in the water to start your backstroke, so I grasped the metal uprights and as the gun was lifted and we were told to “get ready!”, I lifted up as far as I could to get the first split second of air to propel me farther than the water would. Not all the boys knew to do this. (Unlike the video, the best technique back then was to stay on top of the water and start your backstroke immediately.)
My legs exploded and my arms swung above my head, starting the stroke as soon as I felt the water. Good start! But not good enough. My main competition was right there with me. With only fifty yards someone with a lot of muscle power might ace me out despite their slightly inferior start. And in tryouts, there might even be a “ringer” over in a lane I can’t see from here.
Whatever happens, I cannot be complacent at any point in the race.
I focused on good form: great strokes, strong legs, and here was the other end of the pool coming up already. Not quite neck and neck, but still too close!
In 1967, some swimmers still used the old, grab-the-edge-and-spin-about kind of turn. That was way too slow. Most used the backflip-and-twist turn. But that involved too much water above me. My friend, Joey, had helped me learn the new (back then) backstroke turn: Touch the wall, flip your legs up and over in the air, and kick off the side.
I used that turn and expected to leave all competition in my wake, but that fellow in the lane next to me was still right there! Wow! He must really want this.
I want it more.
A big part of my life through grade school and high school was swimming.
Prior to high school, I was on the Wasco Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swim team. I got to enjoy the cool, clean Wasco Parks and Recreation pool in the hot, hot summer where temperatures cold exceed 110 degrees. And I got to learn a bit about competition as I swam against other swim teams in our local area.
My friends and my coaches expected me to give it my all. I didn’t want to find out who I would be if I wasn’t a competitive swimmer on the Wasco Union High School TigerSharks.
Form! Speed! Strength! Focus!
Still neck and neck with split seconds to go! No time for worrying about where the end of the pool is.
Strategy now: Go as fast as you can and stop when the pool’s edge smacks into your head!
Those wonderful starting blocks — Not my head, but I slammed my left hand into the sharp edge of the block as my body slammed into the side of the pool. As I looked down at the blood pouring from the back of my left hand, I heard the timer declare me the winner.
I owned the backstroke that day and every day after — all four years of my time on the swim team. In addition, I was pretty darn good at freestyle and butterfly, and was a key member in relays. In my senior year, I was captain and most valuable swimmer.
I am 63 years old now. And each time I notice the scar on the back of my left hand, I smile.