In days of old, backstrokers pushed off the blocks and surfaced almost immediately.
Then along came David Berkoff, a backstroker at Harvard University, who pushed off the blocks and stayed underwater for a really long time. In a tightly streamlined position, doing rapid dolphin kicks, Berkoff stayed underwater so long he broke the world record in the 100-meter backstroke.
In 1988 alone, Berkoff broke the world record three times. His underwater blast-off changed the face of backstroke. No one could afford to surface immediately anymore.
The rules have since been amended, limiting the underwater breakout to 15 meters after the start and after each wall, but a fast, efficient breakout is still a crucial part of every backstroke race.
Lenny Krayzelburg, the backstroke world-record holder in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter and the 100- and 200-meter short course, tells you how.
Step one: Shape your body like a needle with one hand covering the other and your biceps squeezing your ears, and whip through fast dolphin kicks. Just before breaking the surface, shift to a flutter kick and begin to press your left hand away from the centerline to make the catch.
Step two: While keeping your right arm stretched in the needle position, slightly flex your left wrist to "wrap" your hand around the water and find the right "grip" for your first stroke. Your right hand continues to stretch and will break the water first as your left arm moves farther into the stroke.
Step three: Focus on keeping your body line long and sleek as you begin stroking, and on breaking through the surface at the smallest possible angle. You'll probably feel more natural starting your stroke with a particular hand. As you make your catch, look for a feeling of "solid" or "quiet" water to hold on to through the first stroke.