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The story behind Torpo

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

I am a swimming teacher. Like many parents of children learning to swim, instead of watching their lessons, I started to get involved. I became a helper, level 1, then level 2 over several years. I had inspirational teachers teaching me the art and science of swim teaching.

A swimming coach stands at the poolside

Learning to teach, thinking of change

I was introduced to learning in so many ways, adapting techniques and equipment to individual and group needs. One was the use of games and experimentation. And this wasn’t just for the younger swimmers but the senior club members too. A part was to relieve the tedium of constant lengths and maintain motivation. But another part was in developing new ways of teaching and improving on existing methods.

Through this I used equipment. My special interest was kicking, for all strokes. I found the standard ‘flat’ kickboards provided by the club and purchased by club swimmers, limiting.

Aviation experience complements Swimming teaching

As an aside, I am a professional pilot; a retired RAF pilot with worldwide operational experience including many tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now I am a commercial pilot for a long-haul British airline. As a former RAF tactical flying instructor, I was used to teaching a dynamic skill in a challenging environment.

During my time in the RAF, I spent 18 months working at the UK’s specialist test and evaluation center Boscombe Down. The place where many of the world’s best test pilots have trained and worked. Although only supporting their role, I developed a keen interest in aerodynamics.

It was this interest that I adapted to my understanding of the technical side of swimming. Hydrodynamics and aerodynamics, both elements of fluid dynamics, have many similarities. The main difference being the body of substance through which the swimmer or aircraft moves. Yet in almost every other way the theory is the same. I’ll discuss more detailed fluid dynamics in further blog posts.

So back to kicking and training aids/swimming floats. I knew as a teacher that rotation in the front crawl/freestyle stroke is vital. I understood stability and instability in aircraft and how this was controlled (definitely a subject for another blog post). So, I applied that to swimming, especially the kick. Instead of being balanced by a flat, stable float when kicking, I used equipment such as water polo balls and tied woggles to allow instability and encourage rotation.

I am concerned that long term, regular use of flat kickboards has hindered generations of swimmers by developing a purely vertical kick with little body rotation.

Now I do understand that certain drills are done to isolate particular muscles and elements of the stroke. And this is important sometimes. I also understand ‘social kick’, the practice of a warm-up or down, often side-by-side, catching up with a swimming mate. And there is a place for both of these. But I am concerned that long term, regular use of flat boards has hindered generations of swimmers in developing a purely vertical kick with no body rotation.

Olympic swimmer Stephanie Millward MBE tests out the Torpo float

There are other elements of kicking with a flat board which cause physiological problems. These are especially in the shoulder and lower back with arms held flat in front above shoulder level whilst gripping the board. The head-up position can cause lower back pain due to the back being in extension for a prolonged time.

The limitations of the equipment made me think of something specially designed to counter the issues and promote instability and rotation. The water polo ball was good yet sat too high in the water and had instability in all planes, not just the lateral plane that was required. I tried a rugby ball. This was better but again, full of air.

I also needed something with a low drag coefficient, so it could be used effectively for the other strokes. The shape with a low drag coefficient whilst being unstable in roll yet stable in pitch proved the perfect solution. It is almost more beneficial at fly and breast drills than for freestyle. But it is good for all strokes and a sea change in kicking equipment from a flat board that was originally developed in the 1940s for naval swimmers.

I mulled over the idea for many years until about 3 years ago when the opportunity and finance to put it into practice came about. Torpo was born. In the next post, I discuss the more detailed design process and getting Torpo off the ground.



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