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The breaststroke is the slowest competitive swimming stroke.
Determining the fastest swimming stroke is simple when you compare competitive strokes. Based on the women's world long-course records as of 2014, for example, the fastest stroke for 100 meters is the freestyle -- which typically means the front crawl -- followed by the butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. The sidestroke is not a standard competitive stroke. At one time, however, it was considered faster than the breaststroke.
Sidestroke vs. Breaststroke in the 19th Century
The breaststroke was the first stroke employed when the relatively modern era of competitive swimming began, in 1837. In the 1840s, the sidestroke became more common and eventually replaced the breaststroke because the sidestroke produced faster times. The style, known as the вЂњEnglish sidestroke,вЂќ was different than today's sidestroke because swimmers kept both arms under water, while also employing modern-style alternating horizontal scissors kicks. The stroke began evolving in mid-century, with swimmers lifting their upper arms out of the water during the recovery phase.
Time to Decide
In 1895, English swimmer J.H. Thayers swam 100 yards -- the equivalent of 91 meters -- in a world-record 1 minute, 2.5 seconds, using the sidestroke. Thirteen years later, British swimmer Fred Holman won the first Olympic breaststroke gold medal, finishing the 200-meter race in 3:09.2. In other words, it took Holman about three times as long as Thayers to finish a race that was just over twice Thayers' distance.
Because the sidestroke isn't used during competitions, the stroke doesn't have a universal definition other than the obvious fact that the swimmer remains on one side with one shoulder pointed toward the bottom of the pool and an upper shoulder directed toward the ceiling -- or the sky, if the swimmer is outdoors. You can perform a standard sidestroke by bringing your heels close to your rear, pushing your upper leg forward and rear leg back and then snapping both legs together so they're extended behind you. Your lower arm extends in front of you and pulls back toward your chest, while your upper arm pulls back from your midsection until it's extended and aligned with your legs.
Swim the breaststroke face down with your shoulders parallel with the water's surface. Position your hands below your upper chest and then sweep them to the sides and back. As you do the arm pull, bring your heels close to your rear with the soles of your feet pointing to each side. Extend your legs backward after completing the arm pull. Both your arms must move together, as must your legs.
As of 2014, the women's 100-meter breaststroke long-course world record is 1:04.35. The men's world mark is 58.46 seconds. There is no recognized world record in the sidestroke, but given Thayers' performance in 1895, and the improvement of swim times since his days, a modern sidestroke world record would most likely be faster than a breaststroke world mark in a comparable event.