When Katie Ledecky swam Sunday night, you and most people at home watching paid the most attention to the final minutes of her race — as she swam to victory winning a gold medal and beating her own world record. Yes, she was nearly two seconds faster than her previous time as she swam in to finish. But there's another moment in her race that was just as important: the very beginning. So, why do swimmers touch the foot boards before their events? There are a couple of practical answers to that question. And contrary to what you may think, they have nothing to do with superstition.
Like everything in swimming, it's all about speed. The form at the start of the race can have a big impact on how quickly you launch yourself into the water. Alex Hetland, a Norwegian former world champion swimmer, recorded a video to explain what you need to do. When you push off, you are going to project yourself into the pool using both your legs and your arms. Therefore you need to be holding on with your hands too. You actually grab onto the front of the board and lean back. That causes tension in your arms that is then used in the dive.
Other key points you can get from this WikiHow article. You want to put one foot in front of the other. Then wrap your toes around the front of the board with the foot that's farther forward. Bend down and put your head close to your knees — but maintaining your back straight the whole time. Then lift your hips as high as you can. Your butt will kind of stick in the air, but this gives you the best start.
There's another detail of the first and final moments of the race that is key — and it has to do with technology. Just as you're interested in seeing the swimmers make their last stroke to touch the wall, there's a tool the judges use called a touch pad waiting on the wall that records the swimmers' time. Then there's a corresponding piece that's built into the starting block. It measures the pressure of the athlete on the block and records when they jump in. According to Livestrong, that ensures a swimmer doesn't take off into the pool too early, especially during a relay.
So, once you're on the block in the correct position — and you're sure you're not starting early — you dive into the water keeping your body straight and streamlined. Then it's easy. You just swim 50, 100 or more meters faster than anyone else on the planet. Who says a gold medal is so difficult? But seriously, Team USA, and all the other swimmers, will get on the starting blocks in much the same fashion. Watch for them to bend down and grab onto the board. They'll slightly lean back and then spring themselves forward. This is all about saving every second to not only beat the competition, but also, like in Ledecky's case, beat a personal record.