Modern Backstroke Owes a Lot to Roland Matthes

In Nicholas Nassim Taleb's "Antifragile", he describes a phenomenon he calls "neomania". Neomania is characterized by the "love of the modern for it's own sake". Often in the sport of swimming, there is technical "neomania".

We look at the latest, greatest swimmer and try to analyze what made them great. Then we try to copy that. Lately, I've been heavily influenced to look into the past. It can be easier to pick apart old swimming videos and the swimmers in them for technical flaws. Earlier this year I looked back at Matt Biondi and what first struck me where his painfully awkward breakouts. 

On further look, however, there are so many things that Biondi did right in swimming that aren't necessarily emulated by today's swimmers. That's a shame. In order to get a better understanding of how swimming should look, sometimes we must look backwards. That's why I titled this post "forgotten technique".

Rolling Mattress

One of the swimmers who has always fascinated me is German backstroker Roland Matthes. When I first heard of him, it was impossible to find footage of him actually swimming. But descriptions of his graceful swimming abounded.

He had acquired the nickname "Rolling Mattress" for the way he seemed to slip calmly down the pool when swimming backstroke. Matthes was incredibly ahead of his time, as you'll see for yourself in a moment. In 1968 he dominated the Olympics, winning the 100 backstroke in 58.7 (no other swimmer was under 1:00) and the 200 backstroke in 2:09.6.

By 1972 the competition was far stiffer, but so was Matthes, as he improved his winning times to 56.7 and 2:02.8.

I finally found footage of Matthes at the 1968 Games, and the quality is actually incredible:

Again, the flaws are easy to find. Matthes is so dominant that he actually has time to turn his head around in the way you might scold a 10 year old for doing at the end of the race to find the wall.

That said, there are a number of things that Matthes did that are truly impressive and that a fair amount of world class backstrokers today miss.

The first is the start. Again, your eye will hate the start on first look, as Matthes nearly backflops straight out into the water. But just before he enters, Matthes does a reasonably good job of collecting his upper body (hips through shoulders and hands) into a collective unit. He's arching a bit, but it's nothing in comparison to the exaggerated arches some of his competitors are doing.

For what it's worth, the best modern example I've seen of a swimmer nailing this collection is Natalie Coughlin. Look at the position of her upper body through hands around 2:32 of this video:

As for the actual swimming, it's easy to see why Matthes earned his nickname. While many of his competitors look "bouncy", Matthes arm seems to somehow enter the water and begin pulling immediately and powerfully. 

Without underwater footage it's hard to make determinations of how deep Matthes is pulling, although you get a decent view around 0:23. His pull is rather shallow, and looks remarkably similar to what Ryan Murphy does now:

As we constantly try to move forward in swimming, it's just as important to look back and recognize the strengths of those that came before. Swimming "technique" is not just constantly moving forward, and sometimes we risk losing beautifully wonderful things swimmers of the past (like Matthes) used to do.