For many years, swim coaches have shared video analysis of their athletes to point out strengths and weaknesses in strokes, as well as what drills work for specific movements, and what is the best way to swim faster. The FINA World Championships in Budapest is a great resource for swimmers and coaches from all over the globe to see what’s fast in the water, as everybody is constantly learning how to improve.
On the side of the Duna Arena warm-up pool sits Genadijus Sokolovas, who is the lead senior physiologist for Global Sport Technology and one of the top minds in the sport, a resource that FINA has used for the last 11 years to analyze swimming strokes.
Sokolovas is the main resource for the universality athletes to get their strokes analyzed, something that they might not have the luxury of in their home training bases.
From 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. he can be seen on the side of the warm-up pool, analyzing and giving feedback to athletes that come to him for general advice to fix their strokes.
For many, it’s their first experience with sports science.
In order to analyze the swimmer, Sokolovas uses a GoPro, which is connected to a device at the edge of the pool that measures the speed and force that the athlete is producing. With the video, Sokolovas is able to identify any weaknesses and/or errors he finds in the stroke. With the speed data, he can see where the disparities are - is the breath slowing you down? Is your kick a strength or a weakness? At which point are you the fastest in the stroke? And with any weaknesses he sees, he offers a few drills the athlete can work on to improve. In order to remove multiple sets of weaknesses, he gives them a “super drill” that can be implemented in any training set.
The swimmers pick a stroke to focus on, ideally one they are racing at the FINA World Championships here in Budapest, and Sokolovas gives them about 16 meters of space to record them swimming. He starts this particular day by analyzing two swimmers from Bermuda. In one of the swimmer’s freestyle strokes, he notices she is not pulling enough water, suggesting she swim one-arm freestyle with a paddle on a stretch cord to create resistance, in order to strengthen her catch and get more out of her pull.
For the other Bermuda swimmer, Sokolovas analyzes his butterfly, where he sees he is bending his knees too much on the kick. To combat this, he suggests swimming with a pull buoy between his legs on a parachute to minimize the knee bend while also strengthening the muscles with resistance.
The drills Sokolovas suggests are to help the swimmer understand the purpose of what exactly they need to be doing. He cringes at the thought of “meaningless” drills that coaches have created in the past that hurt swimmers more than help. He believes if the athlete sees themselves and knows exactly where their weaknesses are, then the drills provide purpose and are beneficial to their careers.
His next session is with swimmers from the Marshall Islands. For the male swimmer, he asks him to swim 16 meters of freestyle with a buoy and then again without one. He needs to see at least six underwater kicks to analyze the strengths and weaknesses there, and to see where the speed is coming from in the finite amount of space. By seeing the stroke with and without the buoy, it gives him an opportunity to see if the kick is truly helping or hurting the swimmer.
The coaches are invited in on the review sessions too, which take no less than ten minutes. Sokolovas would love more time, but his day is fully booked with appointments all afternoon in the four-hour window where the warm-up pool isn’t as crowded between the heats and finals sessions.
“I would love to do this all day but we don’t have the space for it,” Sokolovas tells me. “I’ve had sessions where I’m filming and analyzing from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with little breaks in between.”
In a full day, he would have them swim more with other strokes as well, but his services are in high demand, as this is the first experience of sports science for many of the universality athletes.
At the end of the review session, he sends the video he recorded to the coach, and also logs it into his large database, which contains video from all the way back in 2007. He has worked with a number of coaches in the past. He brings up American coach Richard Quick, who Sokolovas helped analyze the strokes of Misty Hyman and Jenny Thompson in the late 90s, as well as Ron Aitken, who he has worked with since 2005. Aitken has most notably coached this year’s 1500 Worlds silver medalist Katie Grimes as well as last year’s 1500 Olympic silver medalist Erica Sullivan.
Sokolovas, alongside his wife Birute, who has a PhD in biochemistry, has developed this Global Sport technology over a number of decades. His database contains video from over 16,000 different swimmers. When reviewing the video with the athletes in Budapest, he doesn’t compare them to anyone else but themselves. He has seen enough swimming strokes that he doesn’t believe he has ever seen a 100% perfect stroke. Sokolovas can pinpoint errors in even the top world class swimmers.
For freestyle, he points out that American Michael Phelps has had the best beginning of the stroke he has ever seen, but did not have the speed of the breath that Nathan Adrian had, citing the London Olympic champion with the best pull and breath among those he has analyzed.
For an event like the men’s 100 freestyle, the world record currently stands at a 46.91 - Cesar Cielo’s mark from all the way back in 2009. Many have gotten close over the years, with 17-year-old David Popovici one who could put this record on notice.
But Sokolovas believes that “the absolute perfect freestyle stroke” could produce a 43.9 in the 100 freestyle.
It’s a time that feels unimaginable now, but Sokolovas has analyzed enough swimmers over the years that he believes the maximum of human potential in swimming has not been reached.
“There’s plenty of room for world champions to swim faster,” he says, and he’s willing to offer help to anyone in the world who asks.