Past, Present, and Future: the Breaststroke Pulldown

There has been much discussion lately surrounding the presence of dolphin kicks in the breaststroke pulldown. It has been the hot topic of the last eight years of international competition and has led to some dramatic changes in the rules that govern our sport. Currently, swimmers are allowed one downward dolphin motion underwater. However, that didn’t always used to be the case.

Controversy first struck in 2004, when elite level breaststrokers were shown on underwater cameras exaggerating the forward pulling motion down into the legs and feet. At this time in our sport it was illegal to perform a dolphin movement at any point in the pull. It sure looked like a dolphin kick. But was it? Perhaps it didn’t matter. The judges standing poolside determined that since the motion was not visible from their position, no disqualifications would occur.  However, more drastic action would be taken soon after.

The next year FINA amended the rules governing the pulldown, allowing for a single dolphin motion following the start of the race and at the beginning of each turn. Coaches and swimmers across the globe attempted to perform the kick at different points in the pull, each convinced that their method would give them the extra edge. The two main schools of thoughts were that the kick was most beneficial either right before or right after the downward arm pull. It became a matter of preference to most swimmers although the breaststroke pulldown would continue to evolve.

There had been little to no discussion about the pulldowns in almost 8 years and it appeared as if the problem had been solved. However, the marquee event of 2012 became eerily similar to the events of 2004. Not only were we presented with underwater footage showing yet another extra dolphin kick, but this time multiple athletes in the heat seemed to be “bending” the rules, rather than just one. As if the situation weren’t delicate enough, this particular swim resulted in a new world-record.

The plot thickens.


After being confronted with accusations regarding the footage, the newly crowned champion admits to have taken the extra kicks. A gold medal threatens to be taken away. The same footage shows multiple other cases of the same infraction. Nothing happens. We are being presented with a considerable amount of indecision, aren’t we? I think therein lies the problem: it is not so much the disqualifications that are surprising, it’s that there has been no distinction between the athletes who are nailed and the ones who get away.

News outlets covering swimming suggest a number of different solutions to the problem. Some will say that an underwater camera that is viewed by a judge will remove any opportunity for an athlete to use extra kicks. Some believe that we should legalize dolphin kicks all together. While I don’t believe either option is wrong for the sport of swimming, I am torn on the subject.

All I request is that we develop a system that allows for calls to be made more consistently. Swimmers train too long and too hard to have that much uncertainty at their taper meet. Regardless of what changes are to come, I think we need to draw a line in the sand — this is legal, and this is not. And furthermore, you will be disqualified if you don’t follow the rules. That way, every time we step onto the block, we know that we are on a level playing field and can let our hard work speak volumes.