Santa Barbara ‘Heads-Up’ Swimmer Has Olympic Hopes

Jesse Zastrow Adopts an Old Technique That Had Won Gold Medals but Fell Out of Fashion

Jesse Zastrow swims freestyle with his head and upper chest above water, a technique used by professional swimmers up until the 1930s when it fell out of fashion. Zastrow is bringing it back and says it’s a faster, more efficient way to cut through the water. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Qualifying for the Olympics is about as ambitious of an athletic goal as a person can hope to achieve. However, setting your sights on the Olympics while also aiming to redefine the way the world thinks about your particular discipline takes that challenge and cranks it past 11 on the difficulty dial. Enter Jesse Zastrow, a 30-year-old sponsor-less swimmer who lives on Milpas Street and is looking to shock the world.

“It’s pretty darn crazy,” laughs Zastrow when I ask him to assess the “craziness” of his idea to qualify for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo as a 50m and 100m freestyle swimmer. “I’d say it’s about as bold as a child climbing Mount Everest.” 

Specifically, Zastrow is looking to qualify as a freestyle swimmer who never puts his face in the water. That’s right, when Zastrow swims his heat and the other competitors are blazing away in a mad splash of whirling arms, scissoring legs, and down-facing heads constantly turning to breathe, he’ll be enjoying an entirely different view of the proceedings, his eyes above the waterline and his arms and legs driving toward the finish with markedly less wake behind him.

A competitive swimmer since the age of 8, Zastrow grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of our nation’s true hot spots of swimming talent. Olympic legends of the pool like Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps were forged in the mid-Atlantic hotbed. Zastrow swam for club, summer league, and various school teams. He then swam for University of Vermont, all of it with his head down just like everyone else. He graduated in 2011 and considered that the end of his hardcore swimming days. His athletic background and interest in biomechanics was a good match for what was then the emerging fitness subculture of CrossFit. 

Zastrow became a certified CrossFit mobility specialist and was more than a half decade down that path when he got his first real taste of heads-up swimming. It happened in August 2016 while out for a swim in Massachusetts’s famed Walden Pond. “I knew immediately that this [technique] could give me an upper hand,” recalled Zastrow. “I mean, I was flailing and felt like it was my first time ever in the water, but even so, it was intuitive to me that this was a potentially better, more efficient way to swim. The physics of it were obvious.”

To be clear, heads-up swimming isn’t anything new. Egyptian petroglyphs depict swimmers with their heads up. And then there is the story of Johnny Weissmuller, arguably the most accomplished American swimmer of the 20th century. Weissmuller, who went on to even greater fame as the actor who portrayed Tarzan, won five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 games and over 50 U.S. National Championships as a devoted heads-up swimmer.

The current version of “the crawl” (with your head down and turning to breathe) came into widespread popularity in the 1930s and has stayed in favor ever since. After all, conventional wisdom — and virtually all serious swim coaches — consider the modern crawl to have superior drag reduction and body angle to the old, heads-up approach. There hasn’t been a major national or international race won by a heads-up swimmer in nearly 100 years. However, in 1978, a kinesiologist named Bob Cooley presented the U.S. Olympic Swim Committee with the idea that heads-up swimming was not only better for the body but that it was also just plain faster. He was all but laughed out of the room. 

Nowadays, Cooley is considered one of the nation’s foremost authorities on flexibility with stretching studios on both coasts, including one right here in Santa Barbara. He is also Zastrow’s coach, a role he played for another Olympic hopeful back in 2000 when then-33-year-old Dara Torres earned a spot on the podium in Sydney as the oldest woman ever to medal in a swimming event. Cooley’s coaching and flexibility knowledge was critical again in the 2008 Bejing Games when Torres took home multiple silver medals and credited stretching as her “secret weapon.” She did not, however, embrace the heads-up approach. 

Photo: Paul WellmanJesse Zastrow

It was Cooley who introduced Zastrow to the technique that day at Walden Pond, and now Zastrow has relocated to Santa Barbara to work with Cooley in both the pool and the stretching studio. The argument that heads-up creates more drag and weight resistance ceases to be valid as your flexibility increases and your technique improves, Zastrow says. “In traditional freestyle, you are pulling yourself through the water with your arms. With heads-up, once you have the sufficient flexibility in your hips and hamstrings, your back arches, your body rises even further out of the water, and you really start to propel yourself with your legs.”

Zastrow’s results at qualifying meets show real promise. He did five of them this past spring on the short course and was frequently the fastest swimmer in his heat. A video of a race at UCLA shows Zastrow beating the field as the announcer, with obvious amazement, says, “Heads-up freestyle beats everybody?”

After talking with Zastrow and reviewing some video, it became clear that I had to try the technique for myself. Within minutes of watching Zastrow swim at UCSB’s pool and observing the folks swimming in the lanes next to him, it was impossible not to notice some major differences. For one, the water was calmer both in front and behind him. Swimmers doing the traditional crawl were pushing water away from their heads, not unlike a snowplow. Zastrow had none of that. His drag appeared to be significantly less. 

The real wow came when I got in the pool myself. With Cooley offering some tips, I was able to momentarily achieve the proper form and the feeling was remarkable. Akin to a speedboat lifting out of the water and achieving planing speed, I could feel my head and torso rise as my legs drove me forward. For a couple of glorious strokes, swimming felt the easiest and most powerful I have ever known it to be. Of course, both my legs quickly cramped and I had to retreat to the hot tub in relatively short order, but, still, the point had been made. 

This spring, the real test for Zastrow’s 2020 dreams will begin as the long course race season gets underway and he ramps things up in hopes of making a big splash at the Olympic Swimming Trials next June in Omaha. All he has to do is finish 1st or 2nd in either of his races, and his ticket to Tokyo will be punched. Of course, this is far easier said than done. 

“The Olympics are my goal, not my destination,” offered Zastrow pensively. “I know if I give everything I have to this that, no matter what happens with Tokyo in 2020, I will wind up where I am supposed to be. I am learning that there is much more to being an Olympian than grit and hard work. Those are obviously important, but it takes even more. You have to develop parts of you that you never knew existed. It is the most humbling thing I have ever done.”

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