The sight of national swimmer Joseph Isaac Schooling cruising in the water - at least a body length ahead of his closest rival - should be familiar by now. At just 18 years of age, the swimming prodigy has already claimed national records in five individual and two team events, including the 200m freestyle. He is also Team Singapore's top-performing swimmer at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, storming to five gold medals and one silver.
Now studying at The University of Texas, Joseph tells us that while a powerful stroke matters, a well-executed flip turn defines a technically proficient swimmer and makes all the difference in a tight race. "Races are won on the turns," he says. "If you bring your legs up too slowly and push off too deep, you'll be behind your competitors."
Case in point: He had been behind for the first 50m in the 100m butterfly event at the 2013 Sea Games, but a good flip turn allowed him to come up in front and eventually win the race.
As with all spectacular sporting manoeuvres, the freestyle flip turn takes a lot of practise to do right, he adds. But even for a novice swimmer, knowing how to execute it will make your laps faster and more enjoyable.
For ease of learning, Joseph breaks this down into steps, which is how he learnt the move as a young athlete. Your first goal should be to perform the turn without getting stuck at any point, he says. Achieve that and you'll be roaring ahead of the pack in the pool.
STEP 1: THE APPROACH
As you're nearing the wall, put extra power into your last two strokes to accelerate before executing the flip turn. "The more momentum you carry into the turn, the more speed you'll carry out of the wall on the turn," says Joseph.
When you're about one body length away from the wall (he does his from 2m out), initiate the flip. With your head tucked in between your outstretched arms, curl your upper torso downwards, while bringing both legs together out of the water at the same time. And while bringing your arms in against your body, bend at the elbows to reduce water drag. "I brace my core to initiate the flipping motion," he says. Use your abdomen to curl your upper body into a ball as much as possible, as this makes the rotation swifter.
Throughout the turn, hold your breath and breathe out steadily through the nose to ensure no water enters your nostrils, he advises. As such, you may want to take a deeper breath on the last stroke before executing the turn.
STEP 2: THE FLIP
Your body is turning around quickly at this stage, and this is where mistakes are made. "You're doing it wrong if you bring your legs up and over too slowly or have them too high out of the water," says Joseph. When your legs are in mid-air, they should be together and bent at the knees. They should also not be tilting to either side. (You can use your hands to help maintain stability.) Continue drawing in your legs until your knees form a less-than-90-degree angle.
Past the vertical axis, begin to unfurl your back such that it's parallel to the bottom to the pool, while extending your arms back out, he says. Your torso and head should form a straight line. At this point, your legs are also re-entering the water and your knees should be pointed straight up. If your feet hit the edge of the pool, it may mean you're starting the flip turn too close to the wall.
STEP 3: THE PUSH-OFF
Once your legs are back in the water, your entire upper body should already be in a straight, streamlined position and your feet should be close to the wall, says Joseph. And as soon as your knees are submerged, push your feet against the wall and straighten your legs. This is the push-off. "Do this as hard and as explosively as you can," he says.
During the push-off, twist and spiral your body so that it is face down in the water again. "For maximum power, wait until you've turned fully and facing down flat before starting your stroke," he instructs. "If you begin your stroke at an angle, it'll be an awkward movement, which will slow you down."
You can also improve your speed further at this stage by keeping your head in the water for the first arm stroke after your turn. Many swimmers surface to breathe as soon as they re-start the front-crawl stroke, but he says you'll get an extra edge in speed if you wait until the second pull-through to come up for air.
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