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Fly Anyone?

 From the Wall Street Journal

Like many fitness swimmers, I can go mile after mile of freestyle without stopping. But a single lap of the butterfly stroke leaves me gasping.

Of the four strokes swum in competition, butterfly is almost universally regarded as more exhausting than freestyle, breaststroke or backstroke. And therein lies its allure. In an age of ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons and crowds chugging up Mount Everest, long-distance butterfly swimming is becoming a new and less-crowded frontier for fitness fanatics. It's also hugely advantageous, because fly swimming, as it's known, requires enormous strengthening of every muscle in the body, particularly the core muscles in the abdomen and back.

The butterfly is a notoriously difficult stroke, but Tom Boettcher is one of a growing number of fanatics who are learning to swim it for miles. He gives WSJ reporter Kevin Helliker some tips for improving his stroke.

Tom Boettcher, a high-tech entrepreneur in Chicago, recently swam butterfly from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, a distance of 1.5 miles, across choppy waters. And summer after summer he competes in the Big Shoulders 5K—a 3.1-mile race in Lake Michigan—swimming every stroke butterfly. "There are times when I'm utterly wasted at the end, and times when I could swim an extra mile or two, depending on how choppy and cold the water is," says the 45-year-old.

Swimming 500 meters or more of non-stop butterfly can place an athlete in a truly elite, if unofficial, club. For context, consider that while the longest Olympic freestyle event is 6.2 miles, the longest stretch of butterfly performed in the Games is 200 meters, or one eighth of a mile.

Nobody knows how many swimmers are flying for distance these days, and there's no distance-flying regulatory body to set standards such as whether wetsuits can be worn in open-water swims. But the mere sight of a swimmer doing mile after mile or lap after lap of butterfly in competitions otherwise teeming with freestylers garners attention of the sort that merely finishing an Ironman triathlon no longer generates. Dan Projansky has won publicity in half a dozen newspapers and magazines for his long-distance open-water races swimming butterfly. "Everybody seems to think I'm a kook," says Mr. Projansky, 52, an insurance salesman in northern Illinois.

People who swim freestyle, the most popular stroke in the U.S. which is also known as the front crawl, are taught to glide through the water in a fashion that creates the sensation of swimming downhill. In the butterfly, however, both arms come forward simultaneously and pull the chest above the top of the water while the feet perform typically a two-beat dolphin kick. More than any other stroke, the butterfly feels akin to swimming uphill.

"There's a huge surge of propulsion as the arms pull you forward, then a deceleration during the recovery," says Steven Munatones, a former coach of U.S. Olympic distance swimmers. "Compared with the consistent acceleration of freestyle, fly is like giving a vehicle the gas and then the brakes, gas and then brakes. It's very taxing."

As hard as it can be to swim butterfly over long distances, the fundamentals of the stroke can be mastered in a single lesson with a good coach. Swim instructors highly recommend it because the butterfly burns more calories and strengthens more muscles than any other stroke. Fifteen minutes of butterfly can provide similar benefits to 30 to 45 minutes of freestyle, says Mr. Boettcher.

Also, so few adults master the butterfly that swimming a single length of it can confer a certain status upon a swimmer. "In a lap pool full of fitness swimmers, one lap of butterfly will turn heads," says Mr. Munatones. "It gives people the impression that you're a more-talented swimmer."

Helping to inspire today's distance fly swimmers is a recent fitness-world emphasis on strengthening the body's core muscles. Great butterfly swimmers have always boasted powerful torsos. As a world-record-setting teenage girl, "I had such a strong core that I had to wear boy's pants," says Mary T. Meagher, who won three gold medals swimming butterfly at the 1984 Olympics. Now a 45-year-old mother outside Atlanta, Ms. Meagher garnered the nickname Madam Butterfly for having held two world records for nearly 20 years—an achievement that ranks among the greatest in sports history.

To strengthen his core, Mr. Boettcher, the distance flyer, says he spends two hours training on dry land for every hour he spends in the pool. The author of a book called Core Training, Mr. Boettcher uses tai chi, ballet and Pilates, as well as exercises such as sit ups, "in order to swim the butterfly optimally." In the water, he trains for hours underwater, propelling himself forward like a dolphin, arms at his side.

A different strategy for distance fly has been developed recently by Terry Laughlin, the 59-year-old founder of Total Immersion, a national swim-improvement program. Mr. Laughlin, who has been a competitive swimmer since childhood, says he found early on that he could swim mile upon mile of freestyle, but barely muster more than 50 yards of butterfly. Frustrated, he spent hours in the pool performing drills that he hoped would expand his fly range. But "that goal eluded me for 40 years," he says.

Five years ago, Mr. Laughlin says he was studying video footage of Olympics champion Michael Phelps when he noticed that after the young man's chest hit the water, "he simply held a streamline, for a nanosecond, while allowing himself to sink." Employing a similar technique, Mr. Laughlin found that it reserved his strength. Accepting that his torso was less flexible than when he was younger, he also began substituting the frog-like kick of the breaststroke for the butterfly's dolphin kick, even though this movement would be outlawed in college or Olympic competitions. Now, Mr. Laughlin swims butterfly "with no fatigue nor any reason to stop other than a desire to do something else," he says.

Write to Kevin Helliker at kevin.helliker@wsj.com