This post was previously published by Terry Laughlin on Aug. 7, 2015.


At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Stany Kempompo Ngangola gained a measure of fame for swimming the 100-meter freestyle.

Not for his speed, but simply for surviving.

Stany was among a small group of athletes—mostly from small underdeveloped nations–who are invited to the Olympics in hopes that the exposure will encourage sports development in their homeland. These athletes are exempted from Olympic qualifying times.

Stany was selected for this honor a year in advance and given assistance with preparation by coaches from advanced swimming nations. Unfortunately the training he was given focused mostly on conditioning with little attention to technique.

Swimming in the first heat, Stany relied on youth and strength to get through his first 50-meter length, but hadn’t gone far on the second length before the commentators began to express concern—shared by everyone watching–about whether he could make it safely to the far wall.

Here’s a picture of Stany—looking very athletic—in the air.

Beijing Olympics Swimming Mens 50 Freestyle


And here is Stany in the water, struggling to complete 100 meters.

Beijing Olympics Swimming Mens 50 Freestyle


What’s remarkable about Stany is how utterly unremarkable he is. I estimate that 95 percent of the millions who watched his struggles on TV would fare no better if put in that position themselves. You see, swimming, as an aquatic skill, is an ‘alien’ activity for land-adapted humans. Do you recognize the swimmer below? 


Lennon Swimming

John Lennon… Human Swimmer!


Energy Wasting Machines

That’s why we say that it’s critical to recognize that—as inheritors of millions of years of adapting to life on terra firma—it is simply human nature to be an ‘energy-wasting machine’ in the water.

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This was confirmed by a study done by DARPA in 2005 while designing a swim foil for the Navy Seals. They found that dolphins convert 80 percent of energy into forward motion. The humans they studied (lap and fitness swimmers—people who thought they swam ‘okay’) were only 3 percent energy efficient.

This bring us to Swimming Principle #1: Always focus on saving energy before increasing fitness. 

To apply this principle, do the following:

 When developing technique, master Vessel-Shaping skills (Balance, Core Stability, Alignment, and Streamlining, before propulsion skills (pulling and kicking.) Vessel-Shaping skills take little energy to perform and provide significant payback in energy savings. Propulsion skills require much more energy and power to perform.

 Propulsion A: When you focus on your pull and kick, pay attention first to how you use the arms and legs to minimize drag, before focusing on how you apply pressure to the water.

 • Job One for your arms is to lengthen your bodyline, since that reduces wave drag.

 • Job One for your legs is to draft behind your upper body—not to churn the water into a froth.

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 Propulsion B: Strive to replace forces generated by your muscles with ‘available’ forces from nature—gravity and buoyancy.

 Swim farther by learning to swim a shorter distance almost effortlessly—rather than pushing to add another length.

 Swim faster by learning to swim at your current speed as easily as possible. Faster times will then come as a matter of course.

 Indeed, for any swimming set, task, or challenge, always start out with the intention to find the easiest possible way to complete it—rather than testing your ability to push through fatigue or discomfort.


Learn energy-saving techniques with our downloadable Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Self-Coaching Toolkit. The drills and skills are illustrated in 15 short videos. Guidance on how to learn and practice each drill effectively is provided in the companion Workbook.toolkit.jpg