To the untrained eye, a swimming relay exchange goes something like this: Teammate swims really fast, touches the wall, then another teammate jumps in the water and swims really fast.
Not even close to reality, though.
Solid exchanges are the product of science, study, and experience.
The best know how to get the edge, to start moving forward at the perfect time, so that when that wall is touched by the swimmer finishing his leg, the next swimmer’s toes are barely touching the block.
There is no delay in liftoff, from the touch of the wall to the dive in the water. Almost as if the two making the exchange are part of one perfectly tuned engine.
This connection has fueled the Mountain View relay teams to the threshold of greatness.
Kyle Law, Chris Xue, Alexander Suk and Davin Gong have set school records in all three relays this season. Their 200-yard medley relay and 200 freestyle relay times are ranked third in the state. They’re not too shabby at the 400 freestyle, either.
“We are going to go for first,” Law said of the upcoming state championships.
The district championships begin Thursday and conclude Saturday, but the relay squads already have met state qualification times. It’s just a matter of which relays they will enter at the Class 3A state championships Feb. 17-18 in Federal Way.
Often, schools enter two relay teams, allowing each swimmer the opportunity to compete in two individual events. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules allow for a maximum of four events per swimmer at state.
Mountain View coach Dave Shoup said it is likely the medley will be one of the relays.
This is how the Thunder describe their individual duties.
“The real goal is to get out as fast as possible and give these guys as much of a lead as I can,” said Law, who opens the medley with the backstroke. “I want to beat my opponents or be real close to them.”
Next comes the breaststroke, with Xue.
“Leave the block as soon as his fingers touch the wall. I try to keep the lead he usually gives us,” Xue said. “And I want to get the next person off the block as fast as I can.”
Third is the butterfly, “the most dreaded stroke,” Suk said.
“I just rotate my arms as fast as I can,” Suk said. “People tell me I have an irregular stroke. But it’s fast.”
If the first three are “on,” then Gong usually has the lead when he jumps into the pool for the freestyle.
“My job is to bring it home,” he said. “A burst of speed, the last 50, bring it home.”
One of the things Gong guards against is that race against the clock. The Thunder set the school record at the first meet of the season, so Gong, the guy waiting until the end to do his job, said he tries not to look at the board. If he knows the time of each split, he has an idea if the team is ahead or behind record pace.
“I try not to get myself psyched out,” he said.
Their coach also likes to remind his swimmers that while school records are quite the accomplishments, the best teams get their fastest times at the end of the season.
“It’s exciting to see them be this successful already. But I know they have a lot more potential,” Shoup said. “Usually records only go down at the state championship. To have all three of the relays go down on the first meet of the year sent a signal. These guys are fast.”
But not satisfied.
“How high are they going to set the bar for the future?” Shoup asked. “Nothing means anything until they jump in the pool and how they do in the finals.”
Law appreciates that pressure.
“We know what we can do. We know we can be fast,” he said. “We just have to go up there and do it.”
The order is different for the freestyle relays. Xue is the first leg in those, which means all four swimmers know how to use the blocks to their advantage.
Law and Gong are seniors, Suk is a junior, and Xue is a freshman. But all of them have been swimming in clubs for years. Because of all that experience, they do not take a lot of time to practice the exchanges.
“Before a big meet, we’ll spend 10 minutes once or twice a week,” Gong said.
The rest is just relying on what they already know. They don’t wait for a teammate to simply touch the wall.
“I’m watching how he’s swimming so I can get my timing down,” Suk said.
They count each other’s strokes, which gives them an idea of when to start moving forward, to gain that momentum.
“I know subconsciously when he’s going to touch the wall,” Xue said. “The easiest way to drop time is to get off the blocks faster.”
“It’s not that difficult,” Law said. “Just years of practice.”