LOS ANGELES — Dave Salo was barking “back flat!” and “heel speed!” as he crisscrossed the pool deck at the University of Southern California. Salo, the Trojans’ men’s and women’s coach and a member of the United States’ 2012 Olympic staff, has earned a reputation as a breaststroke whisperer for his success working with swimmers with different backgrounds and disparate styles.
Danny Moloshok for The New York Times
Michael Alexandrov uses paddles during a workout with Dave Salo, a revered breaststroke coach at the University of Southern California.
His breaststroke training contingent on a Saturday morning last month included Kosuke Kitajima, the 2008 Olympic double gold medalist; Eric Shanteau, the American record-holder in the 100 and 200 meters; Michael Alexandrov, the American record-holder in the 100 and 200 yards; Rebecca Soni, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 200 meters; and Jessica Hardy, the world record-holder in the 100 meters.
Shanteau, Alexandrov, Soni and Hardy will take a break from racing one another to battle a European team of all-stars in the Duel in the Pool on Friday and Saturday in Atlanta. It will be a homecoming for Shanteau, 28, who grew up in Lilburn, 20 miles northeast of Atlanta, before pulling up his roots for fertile training grounds at Auburn University and later at Texas Aquatics in Austin.
A 2008 Olympian, Shanteau was a seeker drawn to Southern California nearly a year ago by the cult of 20-something breaststrokers subjecting themselves to Salo’s esoteric practices.
“I felt like I needed to do something completely different to get to the next level,” Shanteau said. “If you’re in the top 99.9 percent, how do you beat that one-tenth percent? I needed to shock my body.”
Shanteau said he was still adapting to Salo’s low-mileage, high-quality, technique-driven training regimen when he placed fourth in the 200 breaststroke over the summer at the world championships in Shanghai. The second-place finisher was Kitajima, who contemplated retirement after successfully defending his Olympic breaststroke titles in the 100 and 200 at the 2008 Beijing Games.
A celebrity who is recognized everywhere he goes in his native Japan, Kitajima escaped to Los Angeles. He was renting a house in Santa Monica in the spring of 2009 when he sampled a few Salo workouts. Within weeks, Kitajima had left thoughts of retirement behind.
“There’s no stress here,” Kitajima said. “I thought, I can do this.” He added, “My breaststroke’s different from Jessica, from Eric, but Dave knows what advice to give all of us.”
Alexandrov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. His father, Plamen Dontchev, was a 1980 Olympian in the 100-meter breaststroke. Alexandrov competed for his homeland at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. A former Northwestern standout who has called the United States home since grade school, he gained dual citizenship in 2006. After the 2008 Olympics, Alexandrov sat out a year of international competition so he could represent this country. He trained in Tucson before joining Trojan Swim Club in April.
“Dave helps you go faster when you think you’re already peaking,” Alexandrov said. “He notices little things in your stroke that can make a big difference.”
The breaststrokers who train under Salo catch the water on their pulls in the same place, but that’s where the similarities end. Hardy, who also is expected to contend for an Olympic medal in the 50 freestyle next year in London, has a core of steel to complement her Gumby-like leg flexibility.
Her strengths are not to be confused with those of Soni, who has neither an extraordinary pull nor an extraordinary kick, but her timing when she puts the two together is exquisite. Kitajima has a powerful kick, but his technique is what makes him hard to beat. His body position is so efficient, he skims the surface like a water bug. Shanteau has a powerful kick that compensates for a weaker upper body.
Different strengths call for different approaches. At one workout last month, Shanteau was swimming a breaststroke set in the 50-meter racing pool, which was set up for short-course yards. Kitajima was in the adjacent diving well doing his best impression of a yo-yo. He was performing a drill in which he swam breaststroke while wearing a belt with a surgical tubing tail that a teammate held to create extra resistance. When he was done, the teammate reeled him in as Kitajima continued to stroke, a sensation akin to riding a wave into shore.
Soni and Hardy were in the same pool as Shanteau, but Soni was in a middle-distance group that included Shanteau, while Hardy was ensconced with the sprinters.
The breaststrokers race head-to-head plenty of times, but it is not as if a mini-Olympics breaks out at every workout. Salo has created an atmosphere that manages to be competitive and collaborative without becoming cutthroat.
“It starts with Dave because he’s able to keep everybody engaged,” Alexandrov said. “It’s addictive, actually, because there’s so much adrenaline. People don’t back down. It’s two hours of all-out swimming, going as fast as you can while maintaining your technique.”
While not a one-workout-fits-all proponent, Salo does insist on one time interval for all, which is a departure from the way other coaches typically handle those who swim the breaststroke, the slowest of the four competitive strokes. The conventional wisdom is to give breaststrokers more time to complete each distance in stroke-specific training.
“It helps that there’s so many of us breaststrokers out here and we’re all in the same boat,” Shanteau said.
During another workout in the fall with the other postcollegians, Soni, who graduated from Southern California in 2009, was kicking breaststroke in a lane with swimmers doing the dolphin kick, or flutter kick. After a few hundred meters, Soni looked like an iceberg that had broken away from the floe. She was several meters behind her nearest teammate.
“She’ll come in and be frustrated,” Salo said. “I know she’s working hard. That’s kind of our understanding of each other.”
Salo had a successful age-group career in the breaststroke, and he knows what his swimmers are feeling — sometimes better than they do.
“You’ll talk to swimmers, they’ll say they feel like they’re kicking their arms into the recovery,” he said. “But if you look at the videotape you see that the arms are leading the way. That’s the challenge of coaching breaststrokers. You have to be able to describe what you want them to do in a way that makes sense to them because they operate so much on feel.”
In July, Hardy, 24, stood atop the podium after winning the 50-meter breaststroke at the world championships. She was flanked by Russia’s Yuliya Efimova and by Soni, who was third. It was a sweet result for the United States and a clean sweep for Salo, who also works with Efimova.
“He really, really, has a technical understanding of the breaststroke better than anyone on the planet,” Hardy said, adding, “I hear in my dreams every night: ‘Back flat. Back flat.’ He sounds like the Aflac duck.”