1990 FINA World Masters Swimming Championships Rio De Janeiro
"You remind me of that bloke in the films. What's 'Isname? I call him "The Swimmer". You know, the name of that film he starred in. Burt Lancaster! Yeah. That's him!"
I pondered, then I thought. How could I forget him? Burt Lancaster. My boyhood hero. Vivid memories return. It is the early 1950s at The Grandiose, Tooting Broadway Granada cinema in South London., England. I remember being taken there as a very young boy to see the action-adventure film., "The Crimson Pirate".
Burt Lancaster played the star role of a swashbuckling pirate captain.
Strangely, the main sea battle was at the end of the film. The entire film seemed to be Burt, with that ever- confident smile, all hair and teeth, either swinging from mast to mast through an entanglement of ropes or running on land.
He led an acrobat team act before he went into film.
Only at the end of the film did Burt seem to eventually enter the water, finally. Swimming under the sea, leading his crew to overthrow an unsuspecting opposing galleon from behind.
Well, that's how it came across to me at the time. I've always wondered - was that really Burt swimming under the sea? I very much doubt it.
Actually, unbeknown to the general public, he was afraid of water. Or let's put it this way - he was not a very good swimmer.
For instance, during the film, when he was momentarily treading water, I noticed an initial style, a combination of paddle, sidestroke, and struggle to survive.
However, in 1969 in The Swimmer he played Ned Merrill, the swimmer of the film's title, who swims home one afternoon, via his neighbours' swimming pools, one after another.
The dark side of the late 1960's. Death of the idea of grown-ups. Vietnam. The age of turmoil and change in U.S society.
To learn to swim at a high level, so he would not "insult" the real swimmers in the audience, he recruited Bob Horn, coach to the UCLA (University of California Los Angeles Water Polo Team). Bob taught him to swim a hydroplaning water polo front crawl - I strongly suspect for mugshot purposes.
Interestingly, through that film and his subsequent friendship with Bob Horn, he hosted and narrated a U.S water polo film for the T.V. There was also an instructional film for further development of water polo in the U.S for schools, clubs, coaches and players.
Burt thereafter asked Horn to accompany him on set to ensure that his new form showed up well on film. However, the film was somewhat of a box office flop. Had time finally corrupted Burt's smile, or was the theme of the film itself just ahead of its time?
But of course, the hydroplaning water polo front crawl is not new. "Tarzan" Johnny Weissmuller won the 1930 Olympic Games in Paris with it. His coach Ernie Von Brock also had him swimming head up hydroplaning water polo front crawl, but in this instance, streamlining. A concept of swimming biomechanics that seems to keep revisiting swimming from time to time.
Interesting to note that Weissmuller played water polo for the U.S at those same Olympic Games.
His film career starring as Tarzan introduced the Heads up "Tarzan Swimming Drill". A standardised drill even to this day.
The "variations to the theme" care of social media in the name of maintaining the correct head position for better freestyle swimming. For instance, with sprint swimming, head-up sprint drill, head-up quick catch.
And of course. Alignment. Swimming in a straight line and maintaining a steady head position.
Important, mainly in Open Water Swimming.
Just Being there
My own back pages now enable me to reminisce about swimming in the 1990 FINA World Masters Swimming Championships at Rio De Janeiro.
(Bronze finalist medals 400 free 4th 5.06.90 and 800 free 5th 10.43.57).
Now for the Open Water Event.
Here, the distance was 6K. The full 3K length of Copacabana Beach - and back again!
Overlooked by the picturesque Sugar Loaf Mountain, the shoreline and using the sun to navigate.
There were no digitally sophisticated software bodily attachments in existence then.
Up to half-way the 40-44 Year Age Group wave, my particular age group, from all over the world jockeyed for position. Coming back saw the field inevitably dwindle, with swimmers barely in sight of each other.
Then, the weather unexpectedly changed.
Tall waves emerged.
Strangely, no matter how I tried, it felt as if I was not moving forward at all.
As if I were a wave of the sea itself.
Instinctively I stopped.
The depth of water dictated I tread water.
Water polo eggbeater leg kick to maintain a stable body position.
To one side of me, I could see the shoreline.
On the other side the Sugar Loaf mountain itself.
The sun was about to go in.
Although temporarily, lifeguard provision was not in sight.
I was utterly alone.
Do I swim to shore or carry on?
Just being there was so exhilarating.
It felt like I was embarking on a great adventure.
Something that comes only once in a lifetime.
In 1986 rehearsing to star in one of his last performances in a film for T.V, Barnham, where for the umpteenth retake Burt led a circus parade down a hill. Each time the Director called "Cut" the whole lumbering troupe turned slowly around. Up the hill, turn around and head down one more time with Lancaster fuming.
The parade was about halfway down the hill when the Director called "Cut" again to which Burt replied. "Why'd you call "Cut" for that time?" The Director pointed to the sky where a cloud was just heading into the sun, blocking the light. "The sun," he said.
Lancaster bellowed back, "Fuck the sun! Roll ‘em!"
So, I decided to take his advice and Transfixed by the shoreline and the mountain I decided to continue swimming.
First, at a steadier pace.
So many strokes head up, spotting the shoreline and the Sugar Loaf Mountain, to maintain my direction.
Then, sprint, with shorter strokes at a faster pace.
Eventually I finished.
(Bronze finalist medal 5th 1.25.09).
Funny, as I remember, just then the sun then came out.
© Tony Pearce
(and Geoffrey Ford RIP)
A Song to Swim by:
My Back Pages. Sung by The Byrds.
Lyrics by Bob Dylan.
Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.