What about bodily ratios, as in the length of one’s legs compared to torso size, and so forth—any advantage there?
So we’ve been hearing how Phelps has a long torso with shorter-than-expected legs and how that gives him a powerful push when he turns off the wall. There’s a problem here: If two fellows of [the] same height are trying to turn [off the wall after a lap in the pool], the guy with the longer legs will hit the wall from farther away and should also have the better kick going back the other way.
What about the claim that Phelps’s ankles can bend more than other people’s ankles?
It’s true that more supple joints do give you an advantage, and so that’s why stretching helps athletes out a great deal. But I’m not satisfied that Phelps has more flexibility than the other guys swimming in his events. Yes, compared to the average 23-year-old walking down the street, Phelps probably is more flexible that they are, but he’s also in far better shape. If he has some pronounced laxity in his ankles, he is not likely to be that much more flexible [than his competitors].
As for double-jointedness...?
Having elbows and wrists that bend easily should not be an advantage, mechanically speaking. If you put force through a joint that is unstable, you are in danger of hurting the joint. His joints may be somewhat looser, but that could put him at a disadvantage in the weight room.
Another specious claim is that there’s been some talk about him being able to utilize oxygen better than other people. Not having been to [Phelps’] autopsy, I think that’s rather hard to say at this point.
What do you think accounts for Phelps’s success then?
[Phelps] has very good stroke mechanics—that certainly goes a long way. Some people also have better [so-called] “locomotive genius”—this is when swimmers have that sense of moving the water around them and how much water they are displacing. By analogy, think of someone who is stroking a backhand in tennis who just seems to know better [than other tennis players] where the ball will go. Mark Spitz [the swimmer who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics] was claimed to have anatomical advantages. [Spitz] and I swam the same events, though he did them a whole lot quicker. But it was not like he had six fingers. Almost everyone who has success [in sports] is said to have some unusual property, though I have not seen this borne out.
You can compare it to the Ted Williams [urban legend in baseball]—they say he could see the stitching on the ball [of the incoming pitch] rotate, and that he would know by the rotation whether he was getting a fastball or a curveball. I’m inclined to be a little bit skeptical of that. It is the same as saying people have some special intellectual gift. Why is it these people tend to be the ones to close down the libraries and study all the time? Tiger Woods probably was not born being able to hit a ball 250 yards in a straight line, but hundreds of buckets of balls later, he developed such a skill.