“A swimmer must flap his arms and legs underwater, while struggling to break the surface for a gasp of air. You can’t look good while doing that!”
-Rei Ryuugazaki, Free!, episode three
Rei, in your specific case, looking ugly is exactly the point.
The five main boys of Free! make for some interesting contrasts and comparisons in terms of how they each see the world, and subsequently, the different lenses that one may choose to view the world through. If one were to dive into Makoto Tachibana’s head, for example, one would imagine that he sees the world in terms of relationships. This hardly means that he figuratively pairs people off into romantic relationships, he simply sees the bonds between people, specifically his close friends, first and foremost. This study of people and how they act around one another, in addition to consistently considering others’ views and emotions while watching them interact, defines Makoto’s perspective and character within the series. If we were to dive into Makoto’s thoughts for a brief moment, we would probably hear him thinking in terms of relationships and emotions.
Rei Ryuugazaki sees the world not only in sums, but in a beauty that he assigns to people and activities based on calculations. It’s a slightly more neurotic and measured way of seeing things than Hagu Hanamoto of Honey and Clover, who stops randomly to study things, in preparation for regurgitating what she sees onto a canvas at a later point in time. I can personally relate to the latter, which is why Rei interests me more than any other character in Free!.
By measuring the world in how beautiful it is at any given time Rei additionally gives value to this beauty through his own mathematical calculations. He assigns worth to things through their precision and ability to fit into his figures. We have heard a bit what it’s like to be inside of Rei’s head – through his attempts to pole vault and swim – and it’s entirely in calculations to make himself look as beautiful as possible. This presents the perfect contrast to what Haruka Nanase’s inner thoughts often are, which can be summed up in their entirety as: “I want to swim.”
“Do what you want.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t think about swimming, just dive in.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Dive in with your heart.”
“That doesn’t help.”
“Go by your senses–”
“Can you stop using abstract expressions?”
-a conversation between Haruka Nanase and Rei Ryuugazaki, Free!, episode four.
It is difficult to describe to someone how to do something when the one receiving the information sees things only in sums and figures. This becomes near-impossible when the person trying to teach can only explain things in abstract terms as it runs contrary to how the would-be student interprets information. I run into this myself when attempting to describe why I find something in life particularly beautiful, and often resort to gesturing like an idiot while lamely trying to explain: “You know, how it moves through space like this…”
In spite of this disconnect, I’d argue that Haruka is the perfect person to explain things to Rei – Makoto, the one who sees things in terms of emotion and relationships agrees – due to their respective passions. Haruka isn’t seeking to be beautiful, he achieves it naturally through his love of swimming, which is something that Rei has the ability to understand. However, in order to fully realize this, Rei also must abandon his love of sums and search for a raw love of swimming.
“I’m not free either.”
-Haruka Nanase, Free!, episode four.
Both Haruka and Rei are bound by their respective passions, and in this can find common ground. I would like to believe the precise moment that Rei begins to understand Haruka is when Haruka speaks the words above. We as an audience know that Haruka is anything but free. His love of swimming has brought him an equal, if not larger, amount of pain than joy, primarily due to his prodigious ability. Just as Rei’s inability to swim is due to his passion for beauty through calculations Haruka, until recently, had repressed his own love of swimming due to how it caused a rift between him and his closest friend, Rin Matsuoka**. In realizing that even the beautiful Haruka is held back by his own particular emotions and foibles, Rei is able to finally let go of some of his own.
This brings us to the specific stroke that Rei magically learns overnight: the butterfly. It suits Rei, not only in its technical precision – it was developed as a faster competitive alternative to the breast stroke – but in the fact that it’s not the most beautiful of movements through water. Yes, it is a powerful stroke; however, at best, it looks like precise thrashing in water, lacking the grace and fluidity of the back stroke, breast stroke, or front crawl.
Simply put: Rei learned the ugliest possible stroke, and it suits him perfectly.
**As an aside, if we were to peer into Rin’s mind, we would probably hear him viewing the world in tangible achievements, like being an Olympian, which runs contradictory to Haruka, who throws his physical trophies into a cardboard box while specifically valuing the one that he won with Rin, Nagisa, and Makoto the most.