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Pablo Morales - Lord Of The Flow


Cecil M. Colwin

From tiny splash to big splash - that's the story of Pablo Morales, who was destined to become one of the most consummate manipulators of the flow in the history of butterfly swimming. Yes, the career of this future Olympic champion started with a small splash - in fact, with a series of small splashes. The tall thin kid with the Latin good looks delighted in splashing the others in his beginner class. Pablo wanted them to share in the fun of being in cool water on a hot afternoon.

"I was a terror during those swim lessons," says Pablo. "I didn't really listen. I'd splash the other kids. I failed my first three beginning lessons because I couldn't do what was then called 'the elementary backstroke,' which was an odd sort of a drill, but one you had to master in order to pass. Finally, on my fourth attempt, I succeeded."

"I look back on those days with amusement, but it does show that, when you're starting out, just because you don't have a great feel for it, it doesn't necessarily mean that you can't achieve a certain level in the sport."

"Tadpole" Days

Pablo Morales was born in Chicago, but when he was eighteen months old, his family moved to California, the lotus land of swimming. As children, both parents had nearly drowned on the beaches of Cuba, so they made sure that Pablo and his sister learned water safety by enrolling them in a summer club program.

Once both children had become safe in the water, Pablo's parents thought that it "would be healthy, and a good idea" for them to join a year-round swim team, so they joined the nearby Santa Clara Swim Team.

Pablo, then eight years old, was placed in the tadpole group, and, even there, in the lowest tier of the great Santa Clara hierarchy, the kids were pretty advanced. And, at a time when Pablo wasn't feeling all that secure about himself, it was John Spencer, his first coach at Santa Clara, who made swimming a lot of fun, with the result that Pablo soon began to feel at home among his peers. Spencer wisely allowed Pablo to develop slowly, and to improve at his own rate. This was important to him at a time when he didn't believe that he had any more natural ability than the next person in the group. Young Pablo learned early on that he had to work hard for every ounce of success that came his way.

Pablo Morales more recently
For larger 64k photo click on image.

Pablo's next coach at Santa Clara was the age-group coach, Bill Thompson. "He really taught me how to improve my workout habits,and he was just a really great age group coach for me. Bill Thompson continued along the same lines as John Spencer, making it a lot of fun, but Bill had more of a coach's whip-edge to him. Even though he had great sense of humour, and made everything fun, he nevertheless taught us how to really apply ourselves in given sets."

By the age of nine, Pablo had learned to swim all four strokes. As a nine year old, he still hadn't become particularly adept at any one stroke. But, at the age of ten, his butterfly started to show real promise. Says Pablo, "I worked a lot on it. It didn't come to me right away but when I started doing it well, I began to like it. I swam my first 'double A' time in the 50 fly. As a result, I developed an affinity as well as an affection for butterfly."

Inspired by Mark Spitz

Pablo's first memories of competive swimming were of Mark Spitz's successes at the Munich Games. Mark Spitz inspired many swimmers of that era, and none more than the young Pablo Morales. "I remember Mark Spitz swimming in Munich before I had really gotten into swimming. Every day, I followed his progress, and the media seemed to highlight his butterfly races because, although he was the world's champion freestyler, his butterfly was considered his real forte. His butterfly made a big impression on me."

"Later I met Mark Spitz at the 1984 Olympic Trials, and I spoke to him briefly. I had naturally drifted towards butterfly because of his influence, and because, after a couple of years, my butterfly was improving fairly rapidly."

When Pablo moved up to the senior team at Santa Clara, he came under the tutelage of Mitch Ivey, who by then had become head coach after the departure of George Haines, the man responsible for building the great Santa Clara dynasty.

Mitch Ivey coached Pablo for four years until he was 16, when Ivey left to coach at Pleasant Hill Swim Team. But, at the age of 18, during the summer following Pablo's graduation from high school, Pablo rejoined Mitch Ivey at Concord to prepare for the 1983 nationals at Clovis.

Pablo freely acknowledges Mitch Ivey's contribution to his development as an athlete. "He gave me the skills, not only the physical skills to do well, but also the confidence that I could compete at an elite level."

First World Record

Pablo's first world record came in 1984 when he swam the 100 butterfly in 53.38 seconds in Indianapolis.

"I had missed setting the world record the year before by about six hours," quipped Pablo. "This was at the 1983 long course nationals at Clovis, California. Matt Gribble set a world record of 53.34 in the morning, and at night, we were both under the old world record by a couple of tenths of a second, with Matt winning the race by two one-hundredths of a second. So I guess you could say that I missed the record by six hours!"

For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Nick Thierry

"That year the nationals at Clovis represented a breakthrough for me. I had made nationals before, and had qualified for the finals. But that was the meet where I started butting heads with individuals who really were my heros; people like Craig Beardsley, Matt Gribble, Bill Barrett, and Ricardo Prado in the I.M."

"I was stepping up, and starting to compete at close to the same level. This was a big breakthrough for me at that time, and a great motivation to try even harder."


I told Pablo that I remembered the first time I saw him swim. It was in the early 1980s at Indianapolis, and he was practising his kick in a side lane. I was walking along the side of the pool, and was amazed at the power of his kick, and how far his body shot forward with each kick. I remember mentioning to someone that "this fellow swims like the legendary giant with seven-league-boots."

But Pablo insists that his strong kick did not come naturally to him. "I don't think I really had a great kick. Early on, I just had this single beat kick, and this sort of hitch in my stroke, this little squirmy hitch, trying to do a two-beat kick. You know that little hitch stroke that kids do, when they're trying to learn a double-beat kick; they kick out in front, and then they pull through, and they kick again, but the hands won't come out of the water (laughs)... you know that kind of thing... well, I was doing a lot of that."

Pablo said that the development of his kick, getting distance per kick on the downbeat and the upbeat, was the result of a comment made to him by George Eadington, who coached him as a 13 year old, when he made the senior development team at Santa Clara, and first started doing twice daily workouts.

"But first let me tell you that, of all my years in swimming, this was a very tough year. The transition from 11-12, into the 13-14 group was tough. I had grown taller, but not really filled out, and so improvement was very difficult, and really didn't come that quickly as a 13 year old, plus it was a tough transitional year in terms of double workouts. George was a great coach, but he really was a taskmaster. As I say, it was a difficult season to get through."

"But, back to the point; just casually, during one workout, when we were doing a kick set, George mentioned how one swimmer he used to coach had such an amazing kick because, not only did he have a remarkable down-beat, but he got so much out of his up-beat as well. I'm sure he intended this comment as a correction for me to follow out, but I just said, 'Hey! I can do that too!' "

Dolphin Kick on the Back

Pablo worked hard to achieve a full and balanced kick. He also started doing dolphin kick while lying on his back. "I don't know if it was Mitch's idea or if it was George's idea, but I started kicking on my back, and, after a while, I did all my kicking on my back. And, don't forget, this was the guy who couldn't pass his 'elementary backstroke' as a beginner!

"For many years, all I knew was that when it was time to kick, I never grabbed a kick board. I just got into my streamlined position on my back, and just cranked out upside-down kicking sets."

Pablo explained that, when he kicked on the board, he did a strong downbeat, but tended to relax on the up-beat. However, when kicking on his back, he didn't forget about the up-beat, which was now actually the downbeat when he was on his back. In fact, he emphasized it more when on his back. "I believe it gave me better balance between my downward beat and my upward kick. Not only that, it was a great workout for the abdominal muscles, and it also helped my streamlining."

Pablo said that a butterfly swimmer definitely gets more thrust out of the down-beat, but kicking on the back helps to get the feet up. "Not only was I getting some propulsion from my up-beat, but it really helped me to get my feet up quickly, and ready for a powerful down-beat, which is the most propulsive part of the kick."

To Undulate or Not?

I asked Pablo whether he agreed that today's fly swimmers tended to use less body undulation, and concentrated on starting the dolphin motion from the hips down. Pablo said that Pankratov stays very low in the water on his breathing cycle. When he is swimming on top of the water, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between his breathing and non-breathing cycles. There is very little extraneous undulation from the waist up.

Told that the Australian, Scott Miller, also seems to use less body undulation, Pablo said that he hadn't had the opportunity to study Miller, but that he thought too much hip undulation could induce drag.

"I think that too much undulation, especially for sprint fly, can put you at a disadvantage against somebody whose front end of the body is more in alignment, without too much up and down motion."

Asked what he thought were the key points of butterfly, Pablo said, "Looking back over the years, I always thought that a high hip position kept my body in alignment. I guess there's a debate about kicking, and whether one should overkick or not overkick; whether kicking too hard is a bad thing.

"One thing that most people will agree on is having a high hip position. In workouts, I practised getting a high hip position by emphasizing the entry point of my hands. As my hands ride forward for a while, before the catch phrase, my hips were forced up."

Asked if pushing the hips up, as the hands enter, causes the first downward kick to just happen, Pablo said, "Yeah, early on, I always thought about forcing the hips up, but, as an older swimmer, as a 27 year old, coming back into the sport, and always learning something new, and getting to know Bill Boomer a little bit, I understood from him that a good high hip position is also attained by 'pressing the T.' By the 'T,' I mean the lateral spread of the arms at the entry, and the line that crosses from chin to belly button, and from shoulder to shoulder. That makes a lot of sense, if you're pressing the 'T' out in front, it's only natural that your hips will stay high in the water."

The Entry and Body Position

We discussed Mary T. Meagher's beautiful stroke, and how, as her arms enter, her hands actually seem to be higher than her elbows, and she looks almost like a giant condor about to launch itself from a cliff to soar out over the ocean. Pablo agreed, and said: "I'll tell you who had the most natural high hip position, without having a lot of leg drive, was Summer Sanders. Her balance forward was amazing; the fulcrum at her hips brought her naturally so high out of the water."

Pablo at the World Champs in Madrid, 1986
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Asked if he allowed his chest to submerge lower than his elbows at the entry Pablo said, "I can only answer your question by making the motion now, as I talk to you, visualizing what I do in the water. I can only guess without having looked at it on video, nor having specifically concentrated on it, and I feel like it does; I feel my chest does go lower than my hands, maybe slightly, but, mind you, not so much that the elbows drop. I had a tendency to over-reach, as a 16 or 17 year old, because I always thought that length equalled efficiency."

"I did that to such an extreme that I was overextending my arms and slipping at the front end of my stroke, and, at that point, I was getting some elbow drop."

I asked Pablo if he was entering his arms then waiting out front too long. "Yes, and I would be slipping water and over-reaching so much that my elbows would drop slightly. I wasn't getting anything out of the catch that I could grab."

Pablo said that he swam everything in training, "a lot of freestyle, a lot of I.M. work, even though, as a 13 to 15 year old, I didn't compete in the 800 and the mile, but I trained different sets using these as multiples, and I tried to enter in a lot of events in some meets, using them as 'training meets.' I would enter the mile, and I would enter the 800, but, as I got older, this became less and less frequent."

Asked what he thought was the difference in arm posture between the crawl arm entry and the butterfly arm entry, Pablo replied that he thought the arm is straighter in the butterfly entry.

"When I recover my arms, and when they enter the water, I tell myself not to extend my arms too much, but to enter as my thumbs slide into the water. Having watched myself swimming on video, it looks as if my arms are extended as far as they can go without really over-reaching. I feel as if my elbows are still up, but not quite as high as when my hands enter the water. In the butterfly entry, my arms probably extend more than they do in the freestyle entry."

Commenting on the feel of the water during the butterfly entry, Pablo said that he felt the water first on his hand, and then on his forearm, as he started to reach forward into the catch. "So, as my arms enter, I feel the water first on my thumbs, then on my forefingers, then wrists, and forearms."

"Pablo Is A Gentleman Athlete," says George Haines

When I asked George Haines if he remembered Pablo when he was a young swimmer at Santa Clara, George responded in typical fashion: "Did I know Pablo? I've known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper!"

"When Pablo was going to pre-school, my son, Kyle, who is the same age as Pablo, was there with him. It was right off the campus at Santa Clara High School. I could look through the fence of the athletic field at these kids at the nursery school. They couldn't see me. I could watch Pablo and my son playing on the swings together."

"Well when he was older, he swam for John Spencer at Santa Clara, and then he swam in Bill Thompson's group. I was still there, and then, in 1974, I went down to UCLA, and I think, a year later or so, he went up to Mitch's (Mitch Ivey) group, and Bill Thompson had him for a couple of years before I left. He was some talent. They used to call me over and say: 'Look at this guy.' And I'd say 'Hey son, what's your name?' and he'd say: 'Pablo.' And I'd say: 'Pablo, you keep at it!' "

"And then I left to go to UCLA. This boy became a gentleman athlete, and I put him in the same class with Steve Clark and Don Schollander. Pablo Morales never forgot his early coaches. He remembers guys like John Spencer, and he remembers Bill Thompson. He knows who the coaches were who gave him his background. When I went to Stanford, my first year at Stanford, Pablo was a freshman on the men's team. I was coaching the women's team, but Pablo came over to me and started talking all about the Santa Clara Swim Club, and what he did there, and who coached him. He never forgot. He said 'I owe a lot to all those people, and to the Santa Clara Swim Club. That guy's unbelievable!"

Goal-Setting on the Path to Success

Today, Pablo modestly insists that everything he achieved in competitive swimming involved "only a little bit of ability," but that the main ingredient to success lies in perseverance and realistic goal-setting.

Pablo emphasizes that improvement didn't always come right away. For example, improving his butterfly action only came very gradually.

Pablo focusing before his race at the World Champs in 1986
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Pablo set his goals at the beginning of each season. He stresses that he didn't just set goals and forget about them. Each workout demanded a specific mind-set.

Over time, Pablo learned how daily workout performance related to the accomplishment of his goals.

"I had to always focus on my goals, on a daily basis, and not only from day to day, and from week to week, but also from each training set to the next, and from repeat to repeat."

Pablo says that he thought constantly about his goals, and what he needed to do to achieve them. In time he developed a workout focus that helped him improve, and produce the kind of effort that yielded positive results. More than anything, it was this approach that eventually contributed to Pablo Morales' success as an athlete.

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