The evolution of the butterfly

The International Swimming Hall of Fame credits Australian swimmer Sydney Cavill for introducing the butterfly.

The beginning

The International Swimming Hall of Fame credits Australian swimmer Sydney Cavill for introducing the butterfly.

Cavill began experimenting by recovering his arms out of the water rather than in it. The move would still technically qualify as breaststroke, but he realised that if swimmers could come up with more energy, their timings would get considerably faster, as drag would no longer be a factor out of the water.

The dolphin kick

Up until the 1950s, the Butterfly would essentially be a remastered breaststroke where the arms would be out of the water during recovery. But Japanese swimmer Jiro Nagasawa is credited with the modern-day iteration of the Butterfly.

Nagasawa began his swimming career in backstroke, moved to long-distance freestyle and then to breaststroke. But by the time the 1952 Olympics came, he began having arthritis. The trouble lay in his knees and to counter arthritis, Nagasawa began to incorporate a dolphin kick – a move where both legs remain pointed and rather than kicking out, a whipping movement was incorporated. It was essentially mimicking the tail fin of fishes. The Japanese swimmer combined the kick with the stroke.


A crucial factor in bringing the two techniques together is the breathing method employed. If performed correctly, the butterfly stroke sees swimmers raise their heads above the water until their chin.

Every time Phelps’ head breached the water, he would open his mouth and take a breath. He was able to do so because his head would always breach in the perfect position, that is, up until his chin. If it went any further upwards, his hips would go lower into the water and the hydrodynamics that help in achieving speed would be lost, resulting in more drag and strain on the body.

An easy way of countering this is to employ breathing methods used in freestyle swimming. Instead of lifting the head up to take a breath, swimmers can lift their head sideways above the water to take advantage of the air pocket available, before diving back in.

Modern-day technique

Phelps’ butterfly technique relied on a superior dolphin kick. In 2004, Rajat Mittal, a mechanical-engineering professor at the Johns Hopkins University, conducted a research involving a then-young Phelps and his dolphin kick.

“It’s a tough kick to master because it works really well if you can pass that wave down your body very smoothly—the smoother that wave is as it passes down your body, the faster you will cut through water,” Mittal told The New Yorker. “We looked at a number of underwater videos of Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps, and they had an incredible amount of fluidity in the way they were essentially able to flip and flop their legs back and forth in the dolphin kick.”

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