I participated in a swim meet with my co-workers last weekend and was very humbled. I used to do triathlons (Olympic distance) and was good enough overall to go to the National Championship when I was 17, but my swim time always kept me from having a chance at placing. My best time for the 1500m with a wetsuit is 27:00 (already 10 min behind the leaders). Here's what I learned from the swim meet:
1. My freestyle sucks. My 100m was 1:32, which would be a 23:00 for 1500m if I had a diving start or pushoff every 50m.
2. More proof my freestyle sucks - 50m breaststroke in 0:38; 50m free in 0:35 (diving start from pool edge, not starting blocks, for both). The leaders in a 1500m would be doing 0:32 per 50m, without a diving start and without pushoffs.
3. The next day, I did a "splash & dash" (400m swim and 3000m run). Swim time 8:12 (2:30 behind the leader - would have to run 5:15 per mile for ~2 miles to have a chance at winning). This would be a 30:45 for 1500m.
I think I am so slow because of ankle inflexibility. I can't even flutter kick all the way across the pool without stopping a couple times, so I don't think I am actually contributing anything with my feet. I've had coaching before and have heard tons of technique tips but haven't ever gotten faster. I'm comfortable in the water and take breaths every four strokes. I think my time for the breast was a reasonable time, and was a lot closer to the winner than anything freestyle I did. And how could it be almost as fast as my freestyle? It's supposed to be the slowest of all the competive strokes! I feel like I'm more efficient at breast. But that doesn't help me in a tri or in these "splash & dash" races. Has anyone else found a "miracle" that allowed you to swim a lot faster? I feel like that's what I need.
Otherwise I guess this is more of a rant than a question.
My $ .02 is that some folks are just naturally more talented at certain strokes, for whatever reason - that's why people specialize. Chances are if you ever were to train exclusively in swimming (and I mean with a coach and all that) you'd still probably be a better breaststroker than freestyler. That was the case with me in college. In fact I didn't compete in any events aside from 100 & 200 breast plus the medley relays. I was a fast breaststroker but very average (or even horrible) at the other strokes. And like you, my free was not that much slower - for example, I could do a 1:06 100 breast, but barely break a minute in a 100 free.
I don't really know the answer to why, but I imagine it's got something to do with physiology - Ankle flexibility might have a small part to do with your freestyle slowness, but I'd say it's a very small part. In fact a good breaststroke kick requires quite a bit of ankle flexibility...
Sorry I haven't got any answers, but I thought you'd be glad to know you're not alone!
a good way to increase your freestyle speed is to work on kicking technique as well as body position. ankle flexibility doesnt really have much to do with your overall freestyle stroke as much as the correct body position in the water, how efficient your kick is and the proper motion for your hands underneath the water. freestyle or backstroke is probably the best option for you for triathlons even if you feel like your breastroke is lacking. H20 chick has it right on the money, ankle flexibility has a lot more to do with your breastroke kick then freestyle kick. my advice would be to start with that: your kick. have an experienced swimmer look at what you are doing and go from there. then work on body positioning (ie making sure you are completely flat and in some cases, bending slightly at the waste so you are pushing your chest towards the bottom. many people have a tendence to swim too upright, creating a "snowplow" type of stroke if you get what im saying). once you have these down, you can start working on even more technical things like arm movements. these are critical things so work on especially over long distances because it could mean dropping minutes off your times. although ive never done a triathlon, ive swam/coached all my life and plan to carry this over into my first tri at the end of the summer. please let me know if you want further analysis, i think ive said enough for now. good luck.