Why Johnny Weissmuller’s 1934 Swim Times Would Still Beat 95% of Triathletes Today (Even the Pros!)

Swim Speed Secrets by Sheila Taormina


Swim Speed Secrets by Sheila TaorminaHow is it that elite swimmers are dizzyingly tearing apart world records while masses of triathletes, masters swimmers, and age groupers remain stumped as to why their times are barely improving, or not improving at all?

The elite swimming times are almost unreal. Consider for a moment that the women’s world records are now as fast as the men’s world records from the early 1970s. That means that even Mark Spitz’s times from the 1972 Olympic Games are being met by the fastest women today. The 200 m freestyle is a perfect example. Today’s world record for women is 1:52.98. Spitz won Olympic gold in Munich in 1:52.78.

It doesn’t matter which stroke you choose, or which distance. In the 50 m freestyle, South African Jonty Skinner held the world record in 1976 with a time of 23.86. On July 29, 2017, Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden powered to a 23.67. Today’s 1500 m freestyle world record for women, 15:25.48, is 27 seconds faster than the gold-medal world record–setting time for men at the 1972 Olympics. The elite male swimmers are doing the same thing the women are doing—smashing previous marks at a rate that has left most people scratching their heads. It makes a statement made by the famous Johnny Weissmuller seem almost comical. Weissmuller, who won five Olympic gold medals in swimming at the 1924 and 1928 games, stated in his book Swimming the American Crawl, in the chapter “Can the Crawl Be Improved?”:

My technique has been called the “perfected” crawl stroke because it reduced water resistance to the minimum; it facilitated a method of breathing that most closely approximates the natural, involuntary method of nature; it put the body in a position to make free and unimpeded use of all its strength and power and leverage, and it got the most propulsion for the effort expended. Some say there is still room for improvement in this stroke. I do not see just where the improvement will come. (Weissmuller 1930, 45)

Now, we have to give Weissmuller some slack for thinking the world would never improve upon what he did in the roaring ’20s, because he did set 67 world records during his swimming career. In fact, he was never beaten in an official swimming race. Think about it—never beaten! If I were him, I probably would have thought I had perfected the crawl too. Also, it wasn’t like he just dove in and swam any old way he wanted. In his book, he describes—down to the smallest detail—the reasons why he used the technique he used. A great deal of thought went into it.

Johnny Weissmuller shows off his Tarzan swim stroke in Swim Speed Secrets

Johnny Weissmuller (aka Tarzan), swimming with the stroke that earned him five Olympic gold medals and 67 world records.

What was that technique? You may know it as the Tarzan drill—the drill you do in practice where you hold your head above the water. If your coach is a fun person, then he or she will insist you do the ululating Tarzan yell while you stroke (mine did).

[RELATED: See the Tarzan Drill performed by elite freestyle swimmer Peter Vanderkaay.]

That was Weissmuller’s stroke, keeping his chest and shoulders high in the water, and the drill is called the Tarzan drill because Weissmuller became even more famous after his swimming career when he landed the role of Tarzan in the movies. Following is another excerpt from his book, in which he describes his stroke:

I swim with my chest and shoulders high in the water. This enables me to hydroplane, like a speedboat, reducing resistance to a minimum. I swim higher in the water than anybody ever did before, higher than anybody else does to this day. . . . The height of my chest enables me to arch my back, avoiding the strain of the swayback position which many have to take in order to get the face out of the water for inhaling. The high chest and shoulders and the arch of the back throw my feet lower in the water, where they maintain traction at all times. (Weissmuller 1930, 20)

Weissmuller wrote that he also believed the hips should stay flat, because, as he explains, if the hips roll, then the corresponding arm and shoulder dip lower in the water, thus causing resistance.

Today’s freestyle swim technique we know to be the exact opposite. The only people holding their heads above water are people who do not want to get their hair wet, like my mom, and using the hips as part of the stroke is most certainly on everyone’s radar.

Elizabeth Beisel shows her elite swimming technique in Swim Speed Secrets
Most swimmers have body position as good as the elites.

So, are you wondering where I’m going with this?

If you think we are headed for a discussion on reducing resistance, then guess again. Rather, I am going to use Weissmuller and a number of other swimmers who have reigned as champions in the pool for the past five decades to present a picture of swimming that is long overdue—a picture that answers a great many questions.

To begin painting this picture, let me set the scene with the following shocking information: Even though Weissmuller’s times have long been shattered (his 100 m freestyle world record was first broken in 1934), his fastest 100 m freestyle still beats 95 percent of triathletes (even the top professionals), 95 percent of masters swimmers, and 95 percent of age-group swimmers today. It is indeed strange commentary that Weissmuller would beat just about every person reading this excerpt from my book Swim Speed Secrets.

Johnny Weissmuller’s times from 1934 would still beat 95% of triathletes today (even the top pros)!

Let’s look at his times: In February 1924, Weissmuller swam a 57.4 in the 100 m freestyle (long course meters). Sure, the world record now is 46.91, set by Cesar Cielo of Brazil (2009 World Championships), and the women’s world record is 51.71 (Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, 2017 World Championships), but how many of you who are reading this excerpt from my book would think you were the cat’s meow for going a time like Weissmuller’s?

And it wasn’t just the short races in which Weissmuller set world records. He also owned the 400 m and 800 m freestyle records: 4:57.0 in the 400, set in 1923, and 10:22.2 in the 800, set in 1927. Although not nearly as impressive as his 100 m freestyle time, those distance event times would still, even today, place him in the lead, or very near the lead, at any triathlon event going into T-1 (Transition 1, which is triathlon talk for the changeover from the swim to the bike).

I realize that Weissmuller’s times may not impress all of you in the swimming world today, especially his 400 and 800 times (Weissmuller was definitely more of a sprinter than a distance swimmer), which means at this point some of you may think that Swim Speed Secrets is too elementary. It may appear that I am going to address only the crowd that needs to catch up with swimming times that were posted almost 100 years ago. Don’t stop reading so fast. Swim Speed Secrets is invaluable for a swimmer with national times, or the coach of a swimmer with those times, because it is as much about thought processes as it is about swim technique. You may be on the verge of cracking into the very top of the elite ranks but wonder how you are going to climb the next rung of the ladder. The insights provided in Swim Speed Secrets will help you do that.

Sheila Taormina won gold as a short swimmer around 5' 2"

USA Olympic Team Members Allison Schmitt and Sheila Taormina showing that fast swimming isn’t just about wingspan!

The reason many of us have been stumped about how to make improvements in our times, or how to reach the next level, is not for lack of information but rather for lack of organization of the information. A fair number of swimmers work on things that have minimal to zero impact on their times, because they were never accurately told what is most important and which things must be developed first. This book will change that. You should know why you do what you do at every moment when you are working on technique or training. I have a mantra, in sport and in life, that is about taking charge. It is “call the suit.” In my favorite card game, Euchre, each player is given the opportunity at various times during the game to call the suit that will be “trump” (most powerful). Players must look at the hands they were dealt and on their turn make a decision about whether to take charge of the play of the game or pass the opportunity to the next player, their competitor. I always encourage people to “call the suit!” Be bold. Understand what you have in your hand, and then make an informed decision on how best to play the game from there. We are seldom coached on how to do this in our lives. My goal is to show the thought process that will develop this in your swimming, and it will actually be a launching pad for you to apply it to other areas of your life as well.

I’ve limited Swim Speed Secrets to the discussion of one stroke, freestyle, because it is the stroke that I know inside and out. It is the stroke that took me to the Olympics four times. I studied it, I spent endless moments thinking about it in the pool, and I got to know it. I am a fraction of an inch over 5 foot 2 inches in height, so my wingspan was not what put me on the Olympic team—it was the understanding of how to take information and make it work. If you are new to swimming, please do not be intimidated by Swim Speed Secrets. The principles are simple. You will understand everything, and it will help you see the path to your goals. Last, and perhaps most important, let’s keep everything in perspective: We are not solving any world crisis here. Let’s have fun. I am almost certain that if I had had to give up coffee in order to do sports, then I probably would have given up sports. (OK, I’m joking . . . maybe.) Make sure to read the dedication if you need additional perspective, and let’s move forward with answering the question from the beginning of this introduction. Here’s wishing you joy on your journey to understanding the beautiful sport of swimming.