With the Summer Olympics upon us, we are reminded of the highest levels of human athleticism. Swimming is an event closely related to all bodysurfers. At an Olympic level, swimming is an incredible display of technical aptitude, endurance and will. Many talented bodysurfers have experience as competitive swimmers.
Maybe it is because they are comfortable swimming in chilly water at 5 in the morning. Maybe it’s their comfort level in a speedo. It is definitely their ability to move through the water in the most efficient way possible. If much of bodysurfing is first swimming to the best spot on a wave, competitive swimmers have an immediate advantage. Bodysurfers without technical swim training sometimes appear to fight the water instead of gliding through it. It is no guarantee that a swimmer has the Ocean sense to find the right takeoff spot. But once they acquire that knowledge, swimmers are all solid to excellent bodysurfers.
There are prominent examples of world-class swimmers translating their water skills to bodysurfing. The father of modern waveriding, Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, won 5 Olympic medals including 3 gold. After his Olympic career, Duke traveled the world performing swim exhibitions and is credited with introducing board surfing to the United States and Australia.
Aaron Peirsol of Irvine, California is a seven time Olympic medalist including 5 gold medals. Peirsol is considered the greatest backstroke swimmer of all-time. He retired from competition in 2011 and began bodysurfing the Wedge in Newport Beach. Peirsol quickly made an underground name for himself with unmatched skill in the water. He is now an ambassador for the Surfrider Foundation and bodysurfs frequently.
The most comparable swimming event to bodysurfing is the 50m freestyle. Freestyle swimming is defined with the fewest regulations, meaning the competitor is free to choose their stroke. The stroke that is most universally chosen is the front crawl. Also known as the Australian crawl or with kick modifications, the American crawl. This stroke involve alternating arms, up and out of the water and then pulling through the water. We use this frequently as bodysurfers, although our head is usually out of the water scanning with our eyes to find the spot. Conditions change, waves move unpredictably so swim speed is important for maximizing each wave.
Swim endurance is also an important factor. Long sessions in heavy surf are exhausting. Bodysurfers that spend hours in the pool or distance swimming in the Ocean are better suited to swimming through strong currents for long periods of time.
The ability to see a wave approaching and maneuvering quickly to the right spot is fundamental in bodysurfing. The Olympic record in the 50m freestyle is 21.30 seconds set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in Beijing 2008. I do not know about Cesar’s wave knowledge (although he is from São Paulo), he could certainly get “to the spot” with speed and efficiency.
Australian swimmer and bodysurfer, Tom Marr, grew up learning the finer details of swimming from his swim coach father. Tom says, “I highly recommend that all bodysurfers should do some form of pool swimming at least once a week to maintain aerobic endurance in the water. It will not only enable a better swimming technique but also provide increased power in the water that comes from doing laps in the pool.”