Wednesday, November 25, 2015         


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In Prins' high-tech swim program, seeing is believing for the keiki

By Ann Miller


Swim Hawaii's Super Swim program takes something straightforward — beginning swimming — and complicates it. Then it breaks it down so simply a small child can comprehend it. The goal is swim safety, basic stroke mechanics and comfort in the water, but the process has similarities to elite international swimming.

The complications are the brainchild of Jan Prins, a former University of Hawaii swim coach who now teaches biomechanics in UH's Department of Kinesiology & Rehabilitation Science, and directs the Aquatic Research Laboratory, which he founded in 1984. He coached the Sri Lankan Olympic and U.S. Paralympic teams and just returned from a visit with Singapore's national team.

Prins, editor in chief of the Journal of Swimming Research, analyzes swim strokes using high-speed cameras underwater. He films swimmers with light-emitting diodes attached to their joints. His research is used by coaches all over the world.

But on Saturday afternoons at UH's Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex, Prins and seven assistants bring their experience and research to Hawaii's keiki. Super Swim is designed for beginners (from age 4), but the unique process allows a tiny Hawaii swimmer to see how her stroke differs from that of someone such as Natalie Coughlin.

The differences are dramatic enough to be digested quickly. Coughlin's head is steady throughout the backstroke and her body is straight, hands in line with her shoulders. The kids see those attributes quickly when they spend a few minutes watching software-enhanced film, then take their changes to the pool.

While they are there, Prins is also in the third year of a study that examines changes in kids' stroke technique over an extended period at certain ages. After a 25-minute individual lesson, he has filmed some 200 kids during a 20-minute "Long Swim" that tests their endurance and mechanics. That is followed by a biomechanical analysis using a "Swimming Stroke Evaluation Chart" that tracks efficient stroke mechanics and "stroke defects."

The study has shown that there is a progression for all ages, and girls pick up stroke mechanics faster than boys.

"This provides a better understanding as to when to introduce the different swimming skills in the water, recognizing that age, gender and motor development will influence the rate at which swimming skills may be mastered," Prins says. "Not surprisingly, we are seeing the girls, as an average, between the ages of 7 and 12, demonstrate more refined stroke mechanics than the boys. This is something that is not surprising since girls show more rapid motor development in certain skills."

Prins believes the most practical aspect of the study could be to stop teachers from getting frustrated if a child isn't progressing. "They are not ready to learn some things," he said.

He also preaches patience regarding kids moving up to competitive swimming, recommending parents wait until children are 9 or 10. Some kids stay in his program five years, then move on to a team. Some simply move on.

Prins is convinced all the analysis works. So are some of his parents. Sandy You brought her daughter, Sydnee, to Prins simply so she could "learn to swim safely." Sydnee, 9, thrived in the non-competitive atmosphere and worked through some fears. Now she is with Punahou Aquatics.

Duane Nakamura's kids have been taking lessons with "Dr. Jan" for seven years. They grumbled about going to other sports practices, but never swimming.

"We just wanted to develop their skills, have them try to get better at it," Nakamura says. "If they want to get into competition in high school then that's fine. If not, at least they worked toward improving themself and applying themself and it's something positive."

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