It’s not a sprint like the 50-yard freestyle, or a test of endurance like its long-distance cousin the 500 free.
It’s not the most grueling of events like the 200 individual medley, or maybe as physically demanding as the butterfly. And there is the benefit of always seeing where you’re going unlike backstroke.
But breaststroke is complicated.
“Breaststroke’s got a lot of different stuff,” said George Higley, the Talbot County YMCA’s longtime head swim coach.
And a lot goes into pulling all that different stuff together.
Getting off the blocks and streamlining through a clean pullout is just a start toward trying to find harmony. Breaking the surface begins a second piece of choreography, as muscle memory flows into high gear. Legs whip through the water in frog-like fashion. Hands come together prayer-like, thrust forward, then fan out as if trying to create a path of least resistance. Head and shoulders rise, allowing for a quick gulp of air before a face-first plunge back into the water.
The drive down the 25-yard lane is a blend of pace and stroke-count, and the wall up ahead is where harmony is forever tested. One bad turn can be the difference between winning and placing. Timing is critical. The idea is to accelerate at full stroke into the wall, make contact with both hands, then turn, duck under and start everything over again the other way. The trick is to execute three turns with precision in between mastering all the stroke’s other intricacies for 100 yards.
“Timing is everything with breaststroke,” Queen Anne’s County High senior McKenzie Hemingway said.
And she should know. Since the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association began holding the state swimming championships in 2007, Hemingway is the only swimmer — female or male in either Class 4A-3A or 3A-2A-1A — to win the state title in the 100-yard breaststroke four times straight.
“She’s amazing,” Queen Anne’s County head coach Kelley Moore said. “She loves to compete. I think that’s kind of her strength. She trains really hard. But her drive and her passion is getting up and racing. And I think it shows when she does race.”
Higley, who’s coached Hemingway since middle school, agreed.
“She likes to race,” Higley said. “And the back end of a race? Man. If a race is even going into that last turn, I pretty much know who’s going to come out on top.”
Hemingway has come out on top a lot during her young career. In addition to her four 3A-2A-1A state titles in the breaststroke, she won the state championship in the 100-yard freestyle as a freshman and sophomore. She totaled eight individual titles and was part of six winning relays in regional competition. She also won four individual Bayside titles, and will graduate holding conference records in the 200 IM, 100 breaststroke, and 100 freestyle.
This year alone she’s set four new Talbot YMCA club records, breaking her previous marks in the 50 freestyle (23.67 seconds), the 100 free (52.13) and the 100 breaststroke with a career-best and second-place time of 1:03.66 at the Maryland senior state championships. She also clocked a 2:28.74 in the 200 breaststroke, breaking Amber Blair Meer’s club record that had stood since 2009.
“She’s one of the best that’s come through,” said Higley, Talbot’s head coach of 30 years. “Loves to race. I mean loves to race. Like every big meet.
“You think of the kids that have come through like a Jessi Walter,” Higley said of the former Talbot Y standout of the 1990s who went on to swim at Harvard. “I remember her telling me before we went to the Cap Classic, ‘Coach Higgs, don’t worry about it. I got national cuts.’ Heway’s the same deal. She knew she had to take care of business when she had to take care of business and took care of business.”
A Chestertown native, Hemingway thought she had a chance to lower those standards even more in March and April, only to have the YMCA’s annual district and national short-course championships get canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Thought?” Higley asked rhetorically. “She would have lowered those marks. There’s no doubt about that. She always had a plan going there (to nationals). If it was a time trial, not just doing it to do it, but doing it with a purpose. The purpose would be like a team record. Everything she did had a purpose.”
Including practice, although Hemingway doesn’t disguise the fact, “I’m not much of a practice person if I’m being honest. Coach Higley could definitely tell you that.”
Higley could also tell you the breaststroke isn’t as easy as it looks.
“Some kids do the wax-on, wax-off stroke, so their hands are just moving in front of them, and their head’s bopping up and down like the bobble-(head) in the back of my car,” Higley said. “That’s not breaststroke. For breaststroke, the simplest way to put it is lift and go. If you can picture your hands coming in tight, and your palms are up, and your shoulders have to roll up tight. But once you get there it’s decision time. Am I just going to fall down, or am I going to accelerate my hands, moving forward with my head moving forward?
“So it’s pretty technical,” Higley continued. “First you have to have a good start, then you have to have a tremendous pullout. It can’t be like, ‘Oh my hands come down with no purpose.’ It’s a timing thing.
The underwater pullout is also a critical thing with starts and turns. From a streamline position, the swimmer uses their arms to pull down past their hips. As the arms pull down, one downward dolphin kick is allowed, which is followed by the recovery of the arms to the streamline position with a breaststroke kick.
To refine and strengthen her starts, pullouts, turns and techniques in the breaststroke and freestyle, Hemingway began working one night a week with former Washington College head coach Matt Harris in the winter of 2016, and this past season worked with Washington assistant Philip Quick.
“We were focusing on just the stroke as a whole,” Hemingway said. “Some days we would work on turns and pullouts, and some we would work on tempo work to figure out stroke counts. You really have to know your stroke count and know the pace that you need to be able to succeed.”
That extra work helped Hemingway succeed. She won state titles in the 100 freestyle (52.79) and 100 breaststroke (1:07.67) her freshman year, then defended those crowns as a sophomore, clocking a 51.92 in the 100 free, and a 1:06.26 in the 100 breast.
Less than a year later though, Hemingway wondered if her days in the pool were done.
Hemingway figured to be driving through the remainder of her high school and YMCA regular seasons in January 2019.
Instead, she was in a hospital bed being treated for pancreatitis.
“When I got sick I was not in the best place in my life,” Hemingway said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to swim anymore. I was just so upset with my situation, and how sick I was.”
She got better and was released from the hospital after a week. With the help of family, friends and coaches, Hemingway continued to improve physically and emotionally. She was still a ways from getting back in the pool, but a surprise visit to Higley at practice convinced her she wanted back in.
“The higher percentage of kids would say, ‘That’s it. Can’t do it anymore. Not going to face it.’ But (not her). I still remember that night at practice. I just took my coat off and all of a sudden I get this tap on the shoulder. It was Heway, telling me when she was coming back. Oh, my God.”
Hemingway’s memory of that visit is also quite clear.
“I surprised coach Higley and he said that was one of the best days of his life,” Hemingway recalled. “I didn’t come to swim. I just showed up to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m better. I’m coming back, and I’m excited to come back.’ And he was ecstatic. He turned around and he was just jumping. It was a special day for I think both of us. And it made me realize this is what I want to do for the rest of my life I guess.”
Hemingway was strong enough to compete in the inaugural Bayside Conference championships, and won the 100 free and 100 breaststroke. She delivered another impressive performance the following week at regionals, swimming a leg on the winning 200 medley relay before winning the 100 free and 100 breast. But Hemingway gained a huge boost of confidence in the meet’s final event, when she rallied from a sizable deficit on the anchor leg to give Queen Anne’s victory in the 400 freestyle relay, helping the Lions’ win the girls’ team title by two points over Kent Island.
She completed her comeback one week later at states, winning the 100 breaststroke in 1:05.06.
“I surprised myself,” Hemingway said of her third state high school title, which came one day after she competed at the Maryland state championships. “I wasn’t expecting much considering the situation (I was in) the past month.”
Hemingway may have surprised herself, but not Moore.
“She’s mentally very, very tough,” Moore said. “She can overcome disappointment very quickly. Which is impressive because you have a disappointing race, and then she races 20 or 30 minutes later, and she’ll put the old race behind her and focus on the new race, which is hard for a lot of athletes.”
Hemingway continued logging laps and fine tuning her technique in the pool this season. She also began working with personal trainer Theresa Lord, increasing her dry-land training in an effort to strengthen her legs and shave seconds.
“My turns, they actually used to be very weak,” Hemingway said. “I’d say they got better especially this year. Turns, they probably are one of the most important parts of breaststroke, because that’s where you can win or lose a race right there. And I know from personal experience. Turns are probably the most important part of the race.”
Hemingway punctuated her high school career with a stellar senior year. She won the 200 IM (2:15.68) and the 100 breast (1:09.49) at Baysides. She teamed with Jasmine Stubbs, Lily Golden and Sarah Bowyer to win the 200 medley relay at regionals, and added individual victories in the 50 free (24.27) and 100 breast (1:06.19).
Six days later at the Maryland state championships, she set a TCY record in the 100 breaststroke with a career-best 1:03.66, finishing second, but reaching her targeted-time for the season. No one finished ahead of her in the 100 breast the next day at the 3A-2A-1A state meet, as she won with a 1:04.98.
“I dropped over two seconds in my 100 breaststroke this year,” Hemingway said. “I think I could have dropped more if I had gotten the chance to swim at districts or nationals this year. But I’m very happy with my time and I know I can do better in the next coming years with the stroke.”
Hemingway is always nervous prior to a race.
“Whenever I get on the blocks, I’m just getting myself ready, I play with my fingers a little bit,” Hemingway said. “My mom has always pointed that out to me. She knows that I’m nervous whenever I do that; twiddle my fingers on the blocks when I’m ready to go off.”
That little trait doesn’t figure to go away later this year when Hemingway begins swimming at West Chester (Pa.) University, a Division II program that has won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference women’s team title 14 consecutive years.
“I had only heard a little bit about it from (former Washington College head coach) Miss Kim Lessard,” Hemingway said of West Chester, where she plans to study science. “But she said she thought it would be a nice fit for me so I figured why not give it a shot. And it’s only an hour and a half away. I didn’t want to go very far. So when I went up there the town that it’s in is super cute, just this small little town; kind of like Chestertown a little bit.
“But the team was amazing,” Hemingway continued. “I loved the family vibe that they gave me. The coaches were super supportive. It just kind of reminded me of home. And that’s what I wanted to feel. I didn’t want to feel like uncomfortable there obviously because I’ll be spending the next four years there.”
Hemingway could swim freestyle, or the 100 or 200 breaststroke at West Chester. Whatever she swims, she said, “one of my big goals is to make NCAAs and just to improve and get better.”
A lot of people think she’ll do just that.