Freestyle turns revisited with Gary VanderMeulen

Gary VanderMeulen is a former Olympic swimmer, and was coach (and husband!) to Commonwealth Champion Alison Sheppard, as well as a coach to the British Olympic Swimming Team

Freestyle turns can become your greatest strength. However you must decide to dedicate yourself to making them better. With everything that you have done thousands of times it becomes harder and harder to change because the number of poor turns compared to good turns is against you. So the first thing you have to do is be prepared to dedicate yourself to making every single turn as good as you can. Once you have made the decision to do that, this is what you do:

Divide your turn into phases:

  1. Swim up.
  2. Arm action.
  3. Leg action.
  4. The plant.
  5. Push off.
  6. Swim out.

Your turn is all of these things. It is not just a flip over.

1. Swim up

In the Swim up (1) you have to look for the wall and your brain will automatically give you a feel for how many strokes it is until the wall. This needs to be done just outside the flags. It is very important not to lift your head to do this, so you must use your peripheral vision and the ‘T’ on the bottom of the pool. For some turns, where the wall meets the bottom is an even better indictor. In this swim up phase you need to take your last breathe two or three strokes before the wall. You need to do this so you can keep your concentration on how far you are away. If you breathe just before the wall or at the wall you have given your turn no chance of being fast. You might as well do a hand touch turn if you breathe on your last stroke.

2. Arm Action

In the Arm action (2) part of your turn you will need to be able to turn on either arm. That means you will have an extra option compared to a one armed turner. Most swimmers are. In the arm action into the wall your second last stroke stays at your side with the hand remaining palm up. Your last stroke will follow a normal stroke pattern but your head follows your arm down into a tuck. Your last stroke will then meet up with your second last stroke which is still at your side. Your two arms now STAY in the same position at your sides, while your body flips over them. Your two arms help your flip over while remaining in basically the same position. Once your legs get onto the wall your hands will still be together but waiting for your push off, over your head.

3. Leg Action

In the Leg action (3) phase, your legs will be doing their flip part of the turn. The quicker this is, the faster your turn. Immediately once your two arms are at your sides, you do a very quick dolphin kick to initiate your flip. Tuck your forehead towards your knees after the dolphin kick. Your arms will push against the water in an upward scull and you will drive your feet towards the wall. You should continue to be looking at your knees until your feet are on the wall. If you were to swim in freestyle and out backstroke your feet would be best planted upside-down. For freestyle, your feet should be about 45 degrees but not sideways.

4. The Plant

The Plant on the wall (4) portion is now the beginning of the changed direction of your turn. The first half with practice will be done without slowing down for the wall at all. Your arm tempo coming into the wall and your stroke length should be slightly adjusted to make the turn, but this should be done without changing your velocity. You should plant your feet on the wall at exactly the same depth as where your outstretched arms are. You should then have a straight line from hands to shoulders to hips to feet. If you drew a circle made by your feet flipping over, the arc should touch the wall without making your feet extend out or crunch in to touch the wall. The point where you touch the wall should be exactly the spot that you will push off. The reason you want to plant on the wall is so you can get a strong push, so ideally your legs should have a bend at the knees that will give you the greatest power. The spot on the wall is about half meter deep which should be exactly the same depth as your hips shoulders and hands but the depth depends on your size. If you have planted high or low or to one side your push off will have to compensate to make you go straight and this will slow you down. If your feet are away from the wall your turn will be ‘strike’ and not a push.

5. The Push Off

The Push off (5) is set by lining up the hands-shoulders-hips-feet. This line has to be parallel to the surface. You must squeeze your ears before you push off. Most people streamline after they push off. This is obvious when you see turns in slow motion underwater. However, once your feet have left the wall you immediately begin to slow down. If your head is squeezed then you will slow down less. Just after you push off one foot needs to cross the other slightly. This will make a slight spin onto your front from your upside-down position. Do not try to set your self on your front during the plant. This is a common mistake. During the push off you need to be aware of your position in the water. Begin to spin towards the side you are leaning by angling your feet over each other. You will want to be going in a straight line. You may have to adjust using your arms and legs to get that straight line but eventually you can use this part of your turn as a very fast moving rest! WHAT!? A rest, yes indeed, squeeze your head take a half second to two second rest and when you feel your speed decrease begin to add your kick. In the sprint events you will want to kick sooner. Since you should be traveling faster than 2 meters per second you will be going faster that you can swim. So enjoy the product of an excellent turn by not slowing yourself down with an immediate leg kick.

6. Swim Out

You are not finished your turn until you have done your Swim out (6).
While your kick is slowly accelerating to maintain your push off speed you will need to add your first arm stroke to also maintain this speed. When you begin to press down you need to make sure your remaining streamlining arm is still against your ear. As this first arm stroke finishes its pull you will break the surface with your head. This stroke should be very strong to try to swim as fast as your were when you pushed off or even faster. The second arm stroke should not have a breath unless your breathing stroke does not slow down your tempo. You should then make a note of where you are in relation to something on the deck on your first breathing stroke so as time goes by this distance could become easier to reach and farther.