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Freestyle relay starts

by Rowdy Gaines

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First of all, let me preface this article with a word of caution. Doing any kind of start requires a certain amount of skill. There are many shallow pools around the world that are used for competition. Do not use any kind of starting technique that requires the swimmer to enter the water at a sharp angle unless the water is sufficiently deep to do so.

The Proper Start
The freestyle relay start is that start used by the second, third, or fourth swimmers in the relay. In order to generate the most power in a relay start, always use the wind-up start. Never use a grab start on a relay. The wind-up of the arm swing propels the swimmer out and over the water with much more power than the grab start. A wind-up on the grab start is not recommended because it takes too long for the arms to begin rotating, but in a relay we are able to anticipate and time the arm swing with more effectiveness.

The arms should be extended in front of the swimmer on the block. Then, as the incoming swimmer comes to the wall, the arms will swing "up" and "out" in a small circular rotation. Think of it as winding up to do a standing broad jump or throwing two balls underhanded to the other end of the pool. The arms should not swing too far back toward the knees because the motion of going behind the swimmer and then forward with the arms cancels any momentum. The arms should swing in an arc forward and up.

Timing Is The Key
When it comes to relay starts, the key word is obviously timing, that is, timing the take-off to the finish of the incoming swimmer. Remember the rules for relay starts state that the swimmer can be completely stretched out over the water as long as the toes are still on the block when the incoming swimmer touches the wall. It is important that the outgoing swimmer coordinate the arm swing with the final recovery of the incoming swimmer. The arm swing or wind-up should begin as the outgoing swimmer dives into the water - not when he is standing still. The forward motion of the body will give added momentum if the swimmer is leaning into the start.

To time a good take-off, I like to stand straight with arms in front following the incoming swimmer as he comes toward me. As the swimmer gets closer, I begin to "bounce" slightly up and down and bend into a semi-squat position. When the incoming swimmer begins his last arm stroke to touch the wall, I leave the block.

Using Your Head
I like to coach swimmers to "throw" their head to the other end of the pool as they leave the block. The head is the heaviest part of the body. Throwing the head up and out over the water gives the swimmer more explosiveness. After this sequence, the head should tuck back down between the arms for a better entry in the water.

In a freestyle relay start, it is vital to use your momentum from the wind-up to streamline effectively. If you dive too deep, your first stroke will be inhibited. For this reason, it's better to be a little shallow than too deep on the freestyle relay start. Use an explosive first stroke so you can set the tone for that particular length.

An Alternative Approach
There are really two different types of relay starts. One is the conventional relay start that I have described above. The alternate start is the "step- through" start. With this method, the swimmer starts at the back of the block. When the incoming swimmer's hand passes the "T" (a marking that is usually at the bottom of the pool), the outgoing swimmer steps forward with one foot and takes off in the same way as a track start, pushing off with the back foot immediately followed by pushing off with the front foot.

Many people think that there is an advantage to the step-through start because of the additional momentum of the body weight moving forward. Personally, I do not like the step-through start for one simple reason -- the possibility of false starting is increased with a step- through because it is harder to time the incoming swimmer's finish.

The Relay Finish
For a swimmer coming into a finish, it is vital to remember that 90% of all relay false starts are caused by the swimmer in the water. Three words of advice for the incoming swimmer: Stick the wall! Do not ever let up the last five meters of any race, especially in a relay where timing is so critical. I do not breathe the last four or five strokes so I can keep my rhythm and zero in on the wall like radar. If you have to be one or the other, be long on the wall rather than taking an extra half-stroke. That is where most of the problems exist, especially in a fly-free exchange.

Other Strokes
The relay start I've been talking about can be applied to any stroke. The breast or fly start should be done with a little more pike than the freestyle relay start. The reason is because in a breaststroke relay start, you have the luxury of a pull-out before you come to the surface. In butterfly, the dolphin kick helps you break out from going too deep on the start.

Quick Tips
A few more reminders for relay start practice:

Always practice all starts in a pool with proper depth markings.
Don't forget that any relay start is perfected with consistent drills.
It is best to practice the relay start with the same people that you plan to swim the relay with in competition. This will help you conceptualize the timing of the relay exchange with those individuals.
Relay swims are a great opportunity to "team up" for a competitive swim. Don't miss the fun.

Rowdy Gaines won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and was a five-time NCAA Champion at Auburn University. He currently holds Masters long course world records in several freestyle events in the 30-34 age group.


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