The Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi once wrote about Cook Ting, a complete master at his craft of carving oxen. He carved with an almost careless dexterity, guiding his knife through the natural contours of the ox facing no resistance, never forcing his hand. Zip! Zoop! The blade went in and out clean. When Lord Wen-Hui asked about his skill, he replied that he was beyond it. All he knew, after decades and decades of practice, was the Way— the moment when perception and understanding stop and “spirit moves where it wants.”
Teacher Liu was a meticulous educator. To him, freestyle was not just a stroke. It was the sharp bending of the wrist, the smooth pull of the slightly cupped hand toward the hip and further behind, the lifting of the elbow with a relaxed forearm, and finally, the extended reach of the entire arm and shoulder back to the water, index finger first. He taught us to breathe sharply through our mouth and slowly release the air through our noses. We learned how to kick the water properly, with just a little bend to the knees, toes pointed.
The butterfly is the hardest stroke to master. To do it properly, you must undulate your lower torso and legs simultaneously, legs fused together, a koi’s tail. The day we learned the butterfly, Teacher Liu brought in a long bamboo pole. He held the pole upright, leaving the rest of it submerged in the water. One by one, we held on, our bodies floating out behind us. Walking along the side of the pool, Teacher Liu pumped the pole up and down furiously in the water. Following the wide strokes of his arms, butterfly was churned into our bodies; flesh and chlorinated water became one. Zip! Zoop! Our arms cut into solid water, each stroke as crisp as a butterfly’s wing.
When butterfly is done correctly, it is difficult to tell the difference between the surging body and the water. When it is done correctly, the body loses understanding of movement. When done correctly, all should be in a perfect rhythm, as if performing a dance, or keeping time to music. When correct, one should be like a knife, slithering through the spaces of an oxen, never striking tendon or bone.