Chinese Swim Strokes

This is actually part of something I wrote earlier, but I wanted to post it on its own.

I’ve decided to stop being annoyed by Chinese swimmers and start enjoying their company. In China everyone learns the breast-stroke first (or the frog stroke as it’s called here, and I for one think that’s a far better description; the breast stroke sounds like a very timid aquatic double entendre), and then, as far as I can tell, just improvises the rest of the way. All thought of efficient movement or conservation of energy goes out the window while people create their own strokes. It’s actually highly entertaining to swim laps with people who clearly aren’t swimmers, and not solely because they’re hilarious to watch. There’s something admirable about the aspect of Chinese culture where nobody cares what others think. They just dive right in. And so, for example, you get the occasional fatty who strides confidently out to the deep-end in tiny black speedos that have been rendered missing in action by the massive hillock of flesh above them, making their owner look, in the words of Drew Carey, like a Bartlett pear with a rubber band around the middle. But he doesn’t care (the swimmer, not Drew Carey, though I suppose Drew doesn’t care, either). He dives right in. I passed a mountain of a man in the pool the other day and for a few meters it felt like I was swimming laps in the walrus enclosure at Sea World. Did he care? Nope.
Here are my favorite improvised strokes, which I will name and describe for your benefit.

1. The Old Man in the Sea – This isn’t so much a stroke as a perspective. Old men here regularly misunderstand the purpose of swim caps and goggles, and so quite often you’ll see one of them doing the frog-stroke (See? Isn’t that better?) wearing reading glasses and a shower cap. This has never annoyed me. I’ve always loved it.

2. The Butterball – Derived from the Butterfly, which is an awe-inspiring stroke when done correctly and vaguely disturbing when not. The Butterball, unlike the Butterfly, is so-called because it looks like the final death flop of a turkey. The arms are flung forward, and there is a several second delay while the feet slowly, slowly rise from the water, kick feebly down, then the arms are flung wildly forward again as though the swimmer is either trying desperately to catch something just out of reach or is actually a dying farm-bird.

3. The Iceberg – This is where the swimmer has foregone all use of his or her legs and simply paddles slowly with the hands, at a pace that would shame an elderly dog. All you can see of them is a head bobbing up and down in the water, and though you’re mostly sure there’s a body beneath, it’s tempting to think that somebody somewhere is just chucking goggled and swimcapped cadaver heads into the deep end for reasons best left unknown.

4. The Lieutenant Dan – Remember that scene in Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan vaults off of Forrest’s boat and swims slowly, slowly out to sea on his back, his leg stumbs bobbing grotesquely beneath him? (All right, maybe not grotesquely, but at least weirdly.) That’s about the way the backstroke looks here when done by most people. They don’t kick their legs much, if at all, and focus instead on simply windmilling their arms back into the water, then bringing them forward rather than down in a smooth circular motion, making the swimmer look like a person who has survived a boat accident hours earlier and is trying to conserve energy, or like Lieutenant Dan.


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