Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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July 17, 2012

Competitive swimming can be a drag

Beckley — I swim laps at noon several times a week. I enjoy the water, and the gentle exercise is good for my aging joints.

Like other old ladies in the pool, I’m no speed demon. Even a bucketful of performance enhancing drugs would not make me slice through the water quickly. But like all the lap swimmers I know, slow or fast, I take an interest in Michael Phelps and the other American swimmers soon to compete in London in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Phelps is famous for the eight gold medals he won during the last Olympics in Beijing. Because he accomplishes so much, it’s natural to look for special explanations as to why he has dominated his sport.

Focusing on some of his physical attributes doesn’t, of course, take anything away from the training to which he devotes himself as he prepares for competition. But it may well be that he has some natural advantages that help make him a superb swimmer.

Phelps is not a little fellow. He stands 6 foot 4 inches. He’s got broad shoulders and his arms measure 80 inches from fingertip to fingertip – a length greater than his height. That extra-wide “wingspan” is an advantage in swimming, a sport where much depends on arm strength and power. Phelps also has size 14 feet, giving him natural “flippers” that complement his arm movement with a strong kick.

Recently the Science 360 website had a story on the basic challenge all swimmers face: the drag that acts to slow a person’s movement through the water. Thrust is the force that pushes a swimmer forward, while drag opposes that movement. For those of us who don’t swim quickly, drag isn’t really such a problem (gasping for breath is my main challenge in the pool). But for elite swimmers, managing drag is one of the keys to winning races.

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