Is the Grab Start Dead in US swimming?


I am sitting at the 2004 US Olympic swimming trials between sessions with a burning question on my mind. Is the grab start dead in the USA?


By the third day of the trials and I have not seen a single grab start by men or women. This includes the great stronghold of grab starts, the men’s 100 meter breaststroke. Steve Lundquist must be “rolling over in his grave” to quote the old expression. Steve won the 100 meter breaststroke in the 1984 Olympics with one of the great starts in history, of course a grab start. Steve came up ahead with almost a half to three quarters of a body length lead. The race was over as soon as it began; it had to be demoralizing to the other swimmers to see the feet of one of the fastest breaststroke swimmers in history. To put his 28.20 first 50 in perspective, only the 27.93 by Brendan Hansen in the 2004 trials is faster over the last twenty years! And Steve swam in a low-tech suit with his head up the whole way! Back then swimmers were disqualified if your head ever dipped below the waters surface.


What I noticed most during this years trials is no swimmer has an advantage off the start. The taller, heavier, stronger swimmers end up a foot ahead of the shorter swimmers, but the track start seems to be a great equalizer. The track start is noted for being more stable, and with the no false start rule this has led coaches to teach young swimmers the track start almost exclusively. No coach wants to incur the wrath of a swimmer’s parents because their precious 8 year old got disqualified using the grab start.


One of the weaknesses of the track start is that if the swimmer’s back foot slips, this usually leads to a disastrous start.  The grab start does not have this problem. Of the Olympic hopefuls, I have seen only one slip and that by a very experienced female breaststroker. Her swim was over half second slower that the previous swim.


In the 2000 Olympics, review of all semi-final and final races by Issurin and Verbitsky in their publication “Track Start vs. Grab Start: Evidence of the Sydney Olympic Games” stated 63% of the men and 60 % of the women utilized the grab start. Considering the majority of USA females used the track start, the rest of the world was heavily biased towards the grab start. Review of current World Cup events continues the trend of the rest of the world biased towards the grab start. Here at the 2004 USA trials, 99.8 % of all swimmers are using the track start. During the entire Olympic Trials I witnessed only three grab starts, all by men in the 200 breaststroke. Contrast this to the 2000 Olympics where only two swimmers (Petersen and Kitajima) used the track start in the men’s 100 meter breaststroke; and in the women’s 100 meter breaststroke only Megan Quann and Leisel Jones used the track start.


So what has changed the last couple of years? Coach Mike Bottom gave several presentations on how his sprinters such as Olympic Gold Medalist Anthony Ervin utilize his drills for faster starts. Coach Bottom’s swimmers all used the track start, I suppose his endorsement of the track start was sufficient to have coaches and swimmers through out the USA continue their sole us of the track start.


Another contributor was a publication by Issurin and Verbitsky that concluded that the track start had not only an advantage in reaction time but also a significant advantage to the 15 meters mark. Their data used 151 female and 152 male performances in semi and finals from the 2000 Olympics. As is typical with studies such as these, buzzwords such as “statistical significance”, “correlation coefficient”, and “linear correlation” abound. Bottom line they averaged time and distances. This always bothers me in the pursuit of perfection, which can’t be averaged.


My own conclusions from review of the same data are substantially different. I only look at the data from the best starters and those with the fastest times to 15 meters. The men’s 800 meter freestyle times to 15 meters were slower than the men’s breaststroke times. As I have asked before, why would swimmers and coaches want to emulate the style of the losers? The problem with statistical analysis is you end up with averages, and that is not what great swimming is all about.


Let me state that the 15 meter times are not always indicative of great reaction or great starts. Perhaps only in breaststroke is the 15 meter time indicative of start time. For instance in the 2000 Olympics 100 meter freestyle Michael Klim went 14 meters underwater using a dolphin kick and only had one freestyle stroke to the 15 meter mark. Contrast this to Gary Hall’s 4 strokes freestyle to the 15 meter mark. In that same race Pimankov, Neil Walker, Popov, and van den Hoogenband all used the grab start, while Klim, Frolander, Hall and Fydler all used the track start.


I coach for perfection and try to have all parts of each race performed to this standard. The new world record by Brendan Hansen of 59.30 is looked at as 593 tenths of a second. I fight for every one of those tenths! Using data from FINA and the Australian Sports Institute, there are up to 5 tenths of a second variation to the 15 meters mark by male 100 meter breaststrokers, and up to 3 tenths of a second variation to the 15 meters mark by male 50 freestyle swimmers. Consistently in the 2000 Olympics, swimmers in the finals who used the grab start had an advantage at the 15 meter mark. For example: in the 50 meter free, Anthony Ervin in the 2000 Olympics was at 5.86 using the track start; while Popov and Foster using the grab start were both at 5.68 seconds. That .18 seconds is a lot of time to give up against the best sprinters. Mark Foster has been as low as 5.40 seconds to 15 meters in the 2003 World Championships. During that same race, Jason Lezak using the track start was 5.58 seconds.


The best breaststroke time to 15 meters is 6.56 seconds, but many using the track start are as high as 7.24. Ed Moses had a great grab start in the 2000 Olympics, he was fast at 6.59, but after switching to the track start in the 2004 Olympic Trials, he was much slower.


The time to 15 meters can be as high as 7.65 in the 200 meter breast. As Steve Lundquist once said, “The first stroke should be the biggest and strongest of the race”. Since most breaststrokers come up at about 13 meters, one more stroke gets them to the 15 meter mark. So why should there be an over one second difference between the start of the shorter race and the longer race? Both Steve Lundquist and Ed Moses have had races where their start and underwater goes to almost 15 meters, and faster than their competitors to the same mark. One less stroke per length is always good.


If anyone is to swim 21.0 in the 50 meters, I believe they are better off using the grab start to be closer to 5.40 seconds to 15 meters. Same belief for the 100 meters breaststroke, a great two footed start with a time of 6.2 to 15 meters can help the swimmer attain a sub 59 second time.


One measured component causes great confusion among swimmers and coaches, that of the reaction time. This is measured by the pressure being released from the starting blocks; that is the swimmer leaving the blocks. The time from the electrical signal of the starting device to when the feet leave the blocks is the reaction time. Since swimmers are not hooked up to the starting device electronically (perhaps in the future) the only thing swimmers can react to is the starting noise, either gun or beep sound. Being able to react quickly to the starting device is part genetic for those with fast twitch muscles and great hearing; and part training technique. The confusion comes in that almost every study points to the track start having faster reaction timing. These same studies also generally conclude that there is no correlation between reaction time and 15 meters time. One person had a great advantage in the Olympics, Terrence Parkin in the 200 meters breaststroke. Because he was deaf, he was allowed to use a strobe light. Light travels thousands of times faster than sound, and Terrence had the fastest reaction time of the event. But he was only 5th at the 15 meter mark with an ordinary 7.47 seconds. I recently spent many hours looking at the Olympics in slow motion, and for the most part those with the fastest reaction times were not first at the 15 meter mark. That being said Gary Hall has a great reaction time and a near perfect track start.


One reason I often speak of Steve Lundquist; he transformed the grab start from a flatter entry to one of steeper angle so that like a diver with a 10 point score, Steve’s “bubble entry” was through one hole in the water. Review of past great swimmers prior to Steve Lundquist often show poor start technique; like David Wilkie who often piked on his start, or Duncan Goodhew who landed flat. This “bubble entry” is now universal with both the track start and the grab start. With the steeper angle of entry with the grab start the entry is usually cleaner than the track start. Review of Steve’s start also shows he often entered the water 13-14 feet from the starting blocks.


The USA style of track start can be summed up by moving the body center of gravity quickly into the water at a fixed point in front of the starting blocks. Generally there is no attempt to gain additional height or distance, the sole function is to rapidly enter the water smoothly with as little disturbance as possible. This style does not use muscle stretch for increased power, so reaction time is very fast. Contrast this with the grab start that uses muscle rebound stretch for increased power from the muscles to gain height and distance off the starting blocks. This will always increase reaction time by 0.1 to 0.25 seconds. The trade off is much greater distance through the air, typically 3-5 feet more than the USA style track start.


During this year’s Olympic Trials, I measured the distance from the starting blocks and observed starts during practice and during races. Women consistently entered the water between 7 and 8 feet from the block, and the men averaged nine feet. A couple of starts by men during the races went eleven feet from the blocks. This is one yard more resistance by the water than what Steve Lundquist would have had.

In the article “Start Technique – Recent Findings” by Professor Ross Sanders University of Edinburgh stated “Thus, a logical explanation would be that the better starters have a greater horizontal speed at entry and are therefore going faster at the beginning of the underwater period or Better starters enter the water further out from the block and therefore have less distance to travel under the water.” This is actually taken out of context but for our discussion of what perfection can attain this statement is true.

I have followed the grab start transition into the “PowerStarts TechniqueTM”.  This technique is not really a grab start, though it might look similar at first glance.  Pioneered by a track high jumper, the physics of this start allow for consistently greater distances of water entry over the track start. I attended several clinics where I witnessed young men start out with an eight feet entry and end up with a 12-13 feet entry. I am old and heavy and I easily went 12 feet or more. This style of start cannot correctly be called a grab start as no attempt to grab the starting blocks is attempted.  The PowerStart uses both feet at the front of the block, but with the head up instead of the usual head down position of the grab start. The arms are thrown up as throw weights so that the center of gravity is moved higher and the body becomes longer. The angle from the starting blocks is 45 degrees to maximize distance traveled through the air. I believe some one like Steve Lundquist could achieve 15 feet distance from the starting blocks. One very noticeable event at this year Olympic Trials was the backstrokers entering the pool from the starting blocks. More than one person commented this to me, with feet first entry they easily entered 13-14 feet from the starting blocks! If they ever change the rule and allow a block start look out, these guys have some serious spring in their legs.


Using a glide to the surface after entry it was easily seen to translate into greater distance and higher breakout speeds. Emphasis was placed on translating horizontal and vertical speed in the air to increased forward velocity in the water through the application of aero/hydrodynamic lift and drag minimization.  Swimmers using the “PowerStart” have consistently registered improvements of start-times to 15 meters of .5-3 seconds compared to their track start times.  In one particular case, a swimmer at a prominent swimming university improved his 15m times by .5 seconds just by applying only part of the “PowerStarts” concept to his existing start.


Why is there a potential advantage to the “PowerStarts TechniqueTM”?  Two things: gravity and resistance. The higher arc you can attain, the greater the distance and the greater affect of gravity on velocity. Water is 1000 times as dense as air, so why would you want to enter the water sooner. I have reviewed many Olympic tapes and note there are two styles of track start. The USA style is very flat with a low arc and straight entry into the water. The European style of track start has a higher arc that attempts greater distance off the starting block, leading to a higher angle of entry similar to the grab start. The “PowerStart” attempts to maximize the distance from the blocks to entry, with a high angle of entry. The velocity is converted to horizontal speed in the water with their “Magic SurgeTM” by arching the back, steering-up with hands and arms while stretching the body as long as possible and pointing the toes. This relates closely to studies by Bonnar in 2001 (the University of Edinburgh) that the under water phase of the dive is critical to performance of the start.


My challenge to USA coaches is to experiment with greatness. The easy way out, using a flat track start, may not be what is best for your swimmers. Swimmers with fast twitch muscles and great vertical jumps may be best served with a modern technique such as the “PowerStart”. Learning from the great starters such as Steve Lundquist can develop skills your swimmers can use for faster starts. One of Steve Lundquist’s secrets was starting with his eyes closed. In an outdoor swim pool, the swimmers cannot see the starting strobe, but closing the eyes makes the ears more sensitive. Using quickness drills such as developed by Sam Freas, Mike Bottom and others can make your swimmer have quicker reaction time which can translate into first off the blocks. Above all, spend the effort to develop you swimmers’ starts. You can bet that coaches around the world are experimenting with more than just the track start for their swimmers.


Wayne McCauley

ASCA Masters Level 5