This character is much like a duck: they're awkward and clumsy on land, but put them in the water or in the air? Poetry in motion.
There's a lot of variation in this trope. Usually the character is The Klutz (or at least notably awkward) on land, but if given a chance they're very Graceful In Their Element. The variation comes in on what that more natural element might be. On the water they could be a champion swimmer, skier or sailor. Ice-wise they could be an angelic skater. In the air they might be an Ace Pilot. If machines are involved they'll be a Badass Driver with Improbable Piloting Skills, and be able to turn a Humongous Mecha into an Impossibly Graceful Giant. If fighting, dancing or both are involved, they may be a consummate Dance Battler.
This Hidden Depth is used either for humor or to add a level of dichotomy to a character. It can make them seem a bit otherworldly; they're helpless on land, but they're so graceful outside of it that it seems like they don't really belong in this world. This can be further reinforced if the awkwardness is due to a physical disability, so it becomes a case where putting someone in a new medium where they're on a level playing field with everyone else lets them surpass their limitations.
To a certain extent this is Truth in Television. Moving in a different medium like asphalt, ice and zero-g vacuum requires an entirely new skill set that doesn't completely map out with bipedal terrestrial locomotion. While being naturally graceful and aware of kinesthetics makes learning skating or piloting easier, it's by no means a free pass.
Sister Trope to Eloquent in My Native Tongue and Bunny-Ears Lawyer (when someone's personality is extremely awkward, but they're an expert at their profession). See also Crippling Overspecialization, Dancing Royalty.
- In Ranma ˝, while Akane doesn't know her own strength on land she is revealed to be a very gifted and graceful skater, unlike graceful-on-land Ranma.
- Aqua, a filler character in Dragon Ball Z, lumbers about on land like he just got out of bed. His instructor has to constantly remind him what to do. In the water, however, he suddenly looks a lot more alert, able to outspeed Goku like he was standing still and predict all of his movements.
- Akira Renbokoji in Valvrave the Liberator is an extreme Hikikomori, and absolutely hates having to deal with people in person to the point that she starts freaking out and screams until they leave her alone. However, she is an expert computer hacker, and can work miracles while online. Her computer skills become increasingly important as the show goes on.
- Inverted with Kaito in Magic Kaito. Normally a stylish Gentleman Thief, he absolutely have no balance on ice, and would immediately slip and fall over when he enters the skating rink.
- In the DC Universe, this is the background of one of the Sea Devils. He's a musclebound oaf on land, but he takes up diving and discovers he's a graceful swimmer.
- May apply to Awkwardman of the Inferior Five— none of their cases takes place underwater.
- Manno the Merman, one of Wonder Woman's Distressed Dudes in the Silver Age comics who is pretty much even more useless than Aquaman outside the water. Beneath the waves he is an excellent swimmer and a capable fighter. On land, however, he can only awkwardly hop around on his tail.◊ At least Aquaman actually has legs.
- A milder example exists with Namor, the Sub-Mariner. While he is by no means clumsy on land, it's been established he is much more agile and extremely fast (not to mention stronger) when he is in his element: the sea.
- Also applies to Spider-Man, comparatively. On open ground, he can manage a decent athletic run, or awkward but effective long jumps... but give him tall things to swing from and bounce off of and his entire mode of locomotion completely changes, and it becomes blatantly clear why people call him 'amazing', 'spectacular', and 'web-slinger'.
- Ehmte-Ciss-Ronn in Sillage. He is a short, four legged green alien lawyer, the last person you would expect of any athletic feats. However, he comes from an amphibian race and is a graceful swimmer, a fact that might catch his would-be assassins by surprise when he changes his office into a Shark Pool with a push of a button.
- Sid the sloth in Ice Age is hardly graceful on land, but a throwaway gag showed him as a skilled ice skater while Diego and Manny slip and fall. This came in useful towards the end when it turns out he's equally good at skiing. And let's not forget the part where, upon losing part of his makeshift skis, he just starts snowboarding instead, becoming even more graceful. It is awesome.
- The Secret Of Nimh has Jeremy the Crow. Awkward on land to the point of being a ditzy Klutz, but in the air he's a flying ace.
- Orville the albatross in The Rescuers and his brother Wilbur in The Rescuers Down Under. Landing or taking off is an ordeal, but once in the air, pure poetry.
- The reason the stereotypically unhurried turtle sidekick in The Swan Princess is nicknamed "Speed" becomes abundantly clear the moment he's needed underwater.
- The very clumsy Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille turns out to be exceedingly graceful on roller skates, bringing the dishes to every patron in the restaurant within two seconds via a complicated series of hairpin turns.
- Elsa is very reserved and proper while she's in Arendelle, but becomes far more comfortable after leaving and setting up camp in the North Mountain. Such so that in "Let it Go," she's practically dancing while she builds her ice palace. Graceful In Her Element, indeed: ice conjuration.
- Similarly, Olaf the talking snowman may waddle, walk into stuff, or fall into pieces on solid ground, but on ice? He skates like a pro.
Olaf: Glide and pivot... and glide and pivot...
- Philip, the protagonist of the novel Of Human Bondage, was born with a club foot and walks with a limp, but is a strong swimmer.
- Victor Krum in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is described as duck-like on land, but fantastically gifted on a broomstick.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga, the Quaddies are a species gene-engineered to have four arms and no legs. In a gravity field, they're awkward and helpless, but in zero-G, they excel. Miles has rarely seen anything as beautiful as their zero-G ballet.
- Cho-Hag, the Algarian Chief of the Clan-Chiefs in The Belgariad. He was crippled at an early age but is a skilled horseman—which, in the equestrian-based Algar culture, is more important anyway.
- A more metaphorical example in Safehold with Allyn Magwair. For a long time, he's considered to be the most useless of the four villains. He's an awful politician, naval commander and socialite, but when land war starts, he suddenly turns out to be one of Safehold's most skilled generals.
- Vulture of Shaman Blues - he's impossibly graceful in the air, but his manner on the ground is reminescent of a duck with sea sickness.
- Eric starts the Spells, Swords, & Stealth series as a small town guard, and not a very good one. However, all that marching and training and armor still serves him well as he discovers after setting out as an adventurer that much more naturally faster and agile out of armor than in. This ends up making him a better fit as his adventuring party's rogue than their paladin, which he had been originally planning to be.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In one episode Melora Pazlar, a Starfleet officer from a light world, is assigned to the station; because her muscles are designed for a light world she has to wear a special full-body brace in order to get around, which she does very clumsily. At one point some baddies have invaded; the crew turns off the Artificial Gravity, and she's the only one who can move about, quickly taking out the bad guys.
- Farscape: Rygel XVI. Diminutive toad-like creature who rarely even walks on his own, preferring to use his Throne-Sled (hoverchair) for movement. This is because he's aquatic. When we see him swimming in "The Peacekeeper Wars" miniseries, he's extremely graceful.
- In Firefly, Dr. Simon Tam is often portrayed as a Fish out of Water, a Core-born fugitive trying to get by on the Rim with the rest of the crew of Serenity. But in the episode "Ariel", where he has to infiltrate a Core hospital to find out what was done to his sister River, it is obvious that he is in his element — not only does he blend in seamlessly, but he even takes over an operation and saves a patient's life, before then proceeding to ream the doctor in charge of the operation a new one in Drill Sergeant Nasty fashion.
- In an episode of Family Matters, Eddie hires his friend Waldo at the Burger Fool he manages as a favor, but Waldo is incompetent at everything he's assigned to do. Carl tells Eddie a story of a police officer he knew who had a similar problem to help Eddie realize the importance of playing to a person's strengths. For Waldo, this was cooking and his performance improved drastically behind the grill. For the officer Carl used to demonstrate the point, it was going undercover in a dress to lure out muggers.
- Perfect Strangers started out portraying Balki this way. When doing things he really knew how to do, he was competent and at ease.
- In Super Mario Bros. 3, the frog suit is great for swimming, but not for traversing land, where you need to resort to jumping constantly to move at a decent pace, as attempting to walk or dash will just make Mario move with extremely sluggish hops.
- Kine the Fish in Kirby's Dream Land 2, similarly to the previous example, is good at swimming, but can only move at a normal speed on the land by jumping, and can barely move by walking or dashing. In the sequel, however, he's able to dash around on land just as quickly as any of the other animal friends.
- Plesiosaurus and pteranodon from Adventure Island are very clumsy on land, but they are very good swimmers and flyers respectively.
- Joker from Mass Effect. He can only barely walk (slowly) on his feet due to brittle bone disease but is probably the best human starship pilot alive.
- The hanar are basically sentient jellyfish, and can only move on ground through the use of special fields that hold them up. In their native oceans, however, they can apparently move with astonishing speed and agility.
- Rena Hirose from Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere may be a borderline example: she is not extraordinary clumsy but confined to indoors due to allergy to sunlight; flying planes with closed cockpits and external cameras is the only means for her to see the outside—and so she became a distinguished Ace Pilot.
- Captain Bartlett from Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War makes reference to this when he's forced to drive a car while the player supports him from the air, claiming that only being able to move in two dimensions "really cramps my style".
- Cherrim is an otherwise forgettable Grass-type, but when it's sunny out, it blooms, granting its partners in double and triple battles boosted Attack and Special Defense. There is a reason why the final opponent in Pokémon Battle Revolution uses Cherrim in one of his teams, otherwise filled up completely with Olympus Mons.
- Rotom is a Fragile Speedster on its own—it can pack some hurt, but it requires a lot of savvy from the planet to get a lot of mileage out of one. Once Rotom possesses a household electrical appliance, it becomes a Lightning Bruiser, with greatly increased stats and versatility. Appliance-Rotom has since become a staple Pokémon in competitive battling in all four environments, something very few Pokémon can claim.
- As more general examples, a number of Pokémon Abilities related to weather reflect this trope: Swift Swim (Speed doubles in the rain), Chlorophyll (Speed doubles in the sun), Sand Rush (Speed doubles in a sandstorm), Solar Power (Special Attack increases in the sun but takes damage), Sand Force (certain attacks do more damage in a sandstorm), Sand Veil (evasion increases in a sandstorm), Snow Cloak (evasion increases in hail), Rain Dish (continually heals in the rain), and Ice Body (continually heals in hail).
- Sumia in Fire Emblem Awakening is a Cute Clumsy Girl with a tendency to trip over thin air. On a pegasus, she can pull a Big Damn Heroes move to pull her leader out of harm's way. This is something her daughter also seems to inherit.
- A quest chain in World of Warcraft's Western Plaguelands has you take Zenkiki, a novice druid, under your wing for a while. He's incapable of even the most basic of druid abilities until he starts healing and it becomes clear he's a natural restoration druid.
- Starwalker: Starwalker is a pilot and a ship. She can pull miracles in space but is awkward in an atmosphere.
- In The Tick, the character Sewer Urchin becomes much less of a Rain Man-like character when a case actually takes the group into the sewers. (The Tick and Arthur, conversely, begin to act the way Sewer Urchin does when he's above ground.)
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender Teo is a master pilot able to outperform Aang without being able to Airbend. He's also in a wheelchair.
- Quite a few animals that are highly adapted for life in the water, the air or the trees are often very clumsy when on solid ground, even if they're closely related to terrestrial kin:
- Seals. On shore they move with a kind of undulating motion that looks almost comical. Once they get into the water, they can give dolphins a run for their money.
- Most species of procellariiformes (the order of seabirds that includes albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters) are extremely clumsy on land, due to the large wingspans that make them graceful and efficient in the air. Albatrosses are nicknamed "Goonybirds" while on land.
- Many swifts and swallows, while among the most fast and deft fliers, are completely helpless if they ever end up on a flat surface. Their wings are too long to simply take off, and legs are only good for hanging on a tree, rock or edge of a nest. At best, they can clumsily hobble along or climb until they face a height enough for a diving start.
- Penguins as well, they waddle on land but cut through water like bullets.
- Hummingbirds have weak feet that are only really good at perching on branches, but they are among the best fliers in the bird world. They are capable of hovering in the air and even flying backward.
- Loons fall within this category too: While they're great on water, they are named so because of their behavior on land, where humans spend most of their time.
- Whenever people see sea turtles on beaches, they're only capable of dragging themselves along with their flippers, but they are much more adapted to life in the sea. The record holder for the fastest reptile is the Leatherback Sea Turtle.
- Sea snakes have the same problem that sea turtles have, only worse: They don't have the ventral scales that their land-based cousins have and cannot move on land at all, and all true sea snakes give live birth in water.
- This also applies for all of the extinct ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, and mosasaurs. They evolved to the point they never came to land at all and would die if beached.
- A number of tree dwelling mammals move awkwardly when they find themselves on the ground. Sifaka lemurs need to make sideway hops on the ground since their arms are too short and the legs are too long for a quadrupedal gait. Certain bats and Colugo can only flop about and the Sloth can also only drag itself slowly (but surprisingly, they can swim by dog-paddling).
- Of course Sloths hang from tree branches not moving at all like the pros that they are.
- Dragonflies, some of the best fliers among insects, can't walk. They can land for brief periods of time, but about all they can do when grounded is turn around.
- Birds of prey move rather slowly on the ground, but when they take to the skies they're among the fastest creatures on the planet. In fact, the peregrine hold the record for the fastest animal and fastest predator ever to exist.
- Pelicans subvert this trope; while they're not nearly as well-adapted to moving around on land as they are water or air, their combination of long necks, even longer beaks and fast reflexes make them surprisingly effective at ambushing and devouring smaller birds during instances where they can't get hold of (or just don't feel like looking for) their usual food source, fish.
- The fastest human runner alive can reach a top speed of just under 28 mph. The fastest human swimmer can reach 6 mph in the water. In contrast, a dolphin can swim at 25 mph. Its movement speed on land is considerably less than 6 mph.
- Humans in general. Other anthropoids can climb trees much better than we can; frankly, we're beyond ungainly in a tree. On the other hand, no other anthropoid can walk or dance on the ground as we can. We are incredibly weak in close combat; don't ever get into a wrestling match with a chimp; you'll lose. On the other hand, no other anthropoid can throw a rock fast, much less fast and accurately. We are incredibly lethal at a distance; to any chimps reading this, don't ever corner a human if they can find projectiles, you'll lose. Human juveniles can routinely hit a 0.25-square-meter (2.69-square-foot) target with a one-kilogram (two-pound) object thrown at more than 25 meters/second (56 miles/hour), fast enough to crack a skull or deliver a lethal crushing injury. (Human adults make a game of throwing a ball about a quarter that mass about twice that fast at a target that size, and play it for fun.) No other animal can do that.