'Heads up,' says innovator with a fresh swimming stroke

Saying someone has discovered a new swim stroke might be hard to believe, and it can't be said that Robert Cooley, a kinesiologist, has invented a newm stroke. But he has put together an unusual one that might be easier to learn, better for the posture, and, according to Cooley, faster than any other existing stroke. Then again, not everyone is rushing to learn it.

He calls it "the swim stroke," and it looks a lot like the American crawl, or freestyle. The biggest difference is that the swimmer keeps his head above the water at all times.

Cooley discovered that the commonly used strokes do not utilize this basic principle of keeping the head erect.

"I just felt unnatural swimming with my head down," Cooley says. "In all movements, the body likes to have the head up. This helps make the swim stroke easier to learn."

When the head is up, the body follows in a more relaxed, more efficient, more concentrated way.

Cooley's original interest was in body movement, an interest that led him to found the Moving Center in Cambridge, Mass., in 1974. After teaching several graduate courses in movement at Antioch College, Lesley College, Tufts University, and other schools, he became curious about swimming and started researching it.

Cooley claims this stroke helps prevent the "slouch" that swimmers seem to acquire as well as the shoulder problems some develop. The new arm movement is based on the swimmer's first reaction to the water.

"The dog paddle is a good example of how the person wants to 'climb' out of the water," he says. So the swim stroke pushes down on the water first, then back in a slight curving motion.

But is the swim stroke faster? This is Cooley's biggest challenge. The answer boils down to drag and the extra weight of the head. One expert doesn't think Cooley can crack this nut.

"Unless you can repeal Newton's laws of motion, you won't go any faster with this stroke," says James (Doc) Counsilman, twice Olympic swimming coach and present coach of the Indiana University swim team.

Counsilman says studies show that at a minimum, drag increases by 15 to 20 percent when the head is up and the swimmer has to support nearly 14 pounds of extra weight.

Cooley counters this by saying that as the swimmer goes faster, the back arches, the body streamlines, and the swimmer's position utilizes the arms for a more powerful propulsion.

Breathing must be taken into consideration.

"If you study a swimmer who does the crawl," Cooley says, "there is a break in forward propulsion when the swimmer breathes. But in the swim stroke, no break is necessary."

In 1978, Cooley spoke to a US Olympic Swim Committee's advanced coaching seminar and got little encouragement.

The trick, he now says, is to get some of the Olympic coaches, known to be conservatives in these matters, to try it. But getting such an investment is like getting a loan for a new house these days -- nobody wants to take the risk.

If the coaches can be convinced such a radical move could be used to beat the East Germans, one of the strongest and most scientific teams, then the stroke might be tried.

Cooley is not the first to investigate the swim stroke; it was researched as early as the 1920s. But "what often happens with this kind of thing," he says, "is that the research stays in the lab and isn't applied to practical use."

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