Vorticella convallaria is one of the fastest and most powerful cellular machines. The cell body is attached to a substrate by a slender stalk containing a polymeric structure-the spasmoneme. Helical coiling of the stalk results from rapid contraction of the spasmoneme, an event mediated by calcium binding to a negatively charged polymeric backbone. We use high speed imaging to measure the contraction velocity as a function of the viscosity of the external environment and find that the maximum velocity scales inversely with the square root of the viscosity. This can be explained if the rate of contraction is ultimately limited by the power delivered by the actively contracting spasmoneme. Microscopically, this scenario would arise if the mechanochemical wave that propagates along the spasmoneme is faster than the rate at which the cell body can respond due to its large hydrodynamic resistance. We corroborate this by using beads as markers on the stalk and find that the contraction starts at the cell body and proceeds down the stalk at a speed that exceeds the velocity of the cell body.