The Age Old Rivalry of Distance V. Sprint: Who Are Better Swimmers?

There’s no greater rivalry in swimming than the one between sprinters and distance swimmers. Each group thinks they are the more talented swimmers. Sprinters typically believe that they are the best because they are literally the fastest and scariest people in the pool. Distance swimmers, on the other hand, believe that they have the most endurance and do the events others are scared of, making them some of the toughest swimmers out there.

From 10 plus years of swimming experience, I have created a theory of why swimmers turn out to be sprinters or distance swimmers. Distance swimmers swim distance because at a young age they cannot sprint. Sprinters keep doing the shorter events because they are good at them at a young age.

Many may disagree with this statement, but through personal experience and testimonies from Emory University swimmers, I will try and uncover this great rivalry in the swimming world.

Let’s go all the way back to when you first started swimming on a club team. You swim the short events like the 25 and 50 because as a young child that is all many can handle. You start to graduate to 100’s, but even those races are still considered part of  a sprinter’s repertoire.

The kids who excel at the shorter events and exhibit fast twitch muscle responses keep doing the shorter events. These are the swimmers who become sprinters. But what about the kids who aren’t great at generating speed early in a race, but have the stamina and endurance to swim a longer race? Well, you guessed it. These are typically the swimmers who become long distance fanatics.

Although your specific story may differ a little, this is the formula that works almost all of the time. If you ask a distance swimmer if they want to be swimming the mile at meets and training upwards of 10,000 yards in a single practice, they will many times tell you they did not choose the distance events. Moreover, their decision to swim the longer events seems to rely on their inability to sprint or their coach pushing a specific swimming agenda on the child.

The following are quotes from distance swimmers and sprinters alike, who exhibit brutal honesty when explaining why they are either a long distance swimmer or sprinter. We’ll start with some of the thoughts the distance swimmers shared, and after will examine how the sprinters weighed in on the issue.

Swimmers who go the distance

“I didn’t choose the distance life, it chose me”

These words belong to Emory University distance swimmer Christian Baker. Baker is one of the best distance swimmers in the Division 3 level and finished 40th in the 400 free at this summer’s Olympic Trials.

“I think it’s worth mentioning that 90% of distance swimmers have a love/hate relationship with the card they’ve been dealt” said Baker. “I didn’t choose the distance life, my coach saw it in me and that’s how he trained me. If we could choose, I think swim meets would consist solely of the 50 freestyle… but we can’t. I’m just under 5’11” and only 148 pounds. Like I ever had a chance.”

Baker is an example of a swimmer who is the epitome of my theory. He was a short kid, and as a result of his lack of height and inability to sprint, his coach decided to train him as a long distance swimmer. He also makes a bold statement, claiming that most distance swimmers wish their meet schedules consisted of a 50 free. You really can’t blame them and I believe this would hold up if you ask other distance swimmers.

“The mile is nothing more than a test of who will break first”

Tom Gordon is a rising sophomore that has made a name for himself in the Division 3 world. This year at NCAAs, Gordon placed 4th in the 200 free, 500 free, and 1650 free.

Unlike Baker, Gordon recalls how he was actually a sprinter early on in his career. “I was a sprinter until halfway through my junior season of high school.” Gordon told me. “I was okay but I wasn’t going to get noticed by any schools. I moved up a group and my coach realized I could hold a pace better than the swimmers, so he started training me like a miler.”

“I think having been both a sprinter and a distance swimmer has helped me because I feel like it helps me move into another gear sometimes that guys who never were sprinters may not have, especially at the end of races. I’ve always liked the motto ‘mind numbing consistency’. The mile is nothing more than a test of who will break first. I love that aspect, that mental toughness of knowing you’re going to hit your pace, every 50, consistent as hell, daring the guy next to you to try and match it.”

Gordon joined the distance life in a similar fashion to Baker, but appreciates his experience as a sprinter. He believes that ultimate test in swimming is stamina and not just a 20 second dog fight.

“The fact is I could never have been a good sprinter”

Henry Copses is an honest guy, and another powerhouse distance swimmer in the Emory group. Copses qualified for NCAAs his freshman year, and is always a wealth of knowledge on the subject of distance racing.

Copses explained to me that he agrees with the two testimonies above, and that he never could have been a good sprinter.

“Yes, the sprint life is a more glamorous one, but I think that the amount of mental and physical toughness required to put together a good mile is something that not everyone can say they have. I also like the strategy aspect of swimming distance. For a 50, the strategy is pretty consistent across the board. For a mile, or even a 500, there are people with lots of different strategies.”

Copses emphasizes the strategy of the longer races, something Gordon also pointed out. I think its worth noting that this aspect of swimming is very important in the distance races, and not something that sprinters spend much time on.

“I think that the best part about distance is the fact that it is a mind/strategy game as much as it is about your physical performance.” Copses added.

“I clearly couldn’t stand the pain”

Mitchell Cooper brings in a fresh look at the argument, as someone who went from a pure distance swimmer to a back/IMer. Cooper has attended NCAAs each of his years at Emory, and has gone from swimming races like the mile to the 50 and 100 back.

“I’ve pretty much done every event there is in college. The 50 is thrilling: it’s fast and anything can happen. The Mile is tactical: it’s about who can sustain the pain the longest. I clearly couldn’t stand the pain, which is why I traded the Mile for the 50 Back. I think anyone can become a decent sprinter, but I think it takes a special kind of person to become a distance swimmer.”

Unlike the previous distance swimmers, Cooper believes that anyone can become a sprinter, and that it takes a certain type of person to become a distance swimmer. The sprinters, however, also have their take on this issue, and distance swimmers may find that they disagree with what the sprinters have to say.

Sprinting to the finish

“My body has two speeds, slow and fast”

Oliver Smith is now the best sprinter in Division 3, with his win at NCAAs this past year in the 50, clocking a 19.5. Smith also anchored the winning 200 free relay in a time of 18.9. The guy isn’t messing around, and being a mediocre swimmer isn’t something that Smith was ever going to settle for.

Smith did know, at an early age, that the sprint life was meant for him. “I sprint for a couple reasons.” explained Smith. “It’s the only thing I can do. My body has two speeds, slow and fast. I can’t hold a pace for thousands of yards. Also because I think they’re the most bad ass events. When I think of who the fastest person in the pool is I’m not going to say the guy that does the mile. Look at the body type of Nathan Adrian compared to Connor Jaeger, sprinters are all muscle and pure speed. I want to feel like the biggest baddest guy when I walk in the pool and that’s what sprinters are.”

Smith goes on to explain that being a sprinter is part of your personality. “Another reason is I have a cocky/arrogant side, and I feel like to be a successful sprinter you have to have that. You have to believe whole heartedly that you’re better than everyone else in the building. I live my life by a motto, life’s competition, don’t lose. I feel like that motto pretty much sums up everything a sprinter is.”

The 50 is about being the fastest person in the pool, and Smith is correct in pointing out the different body types that different swimmers seem to have. Sprinting takes more power and therefore more muscle, while distance swimmers want to stay lean in order to move through the water most efficiently.

Smith was born with fast twitch muscles and many abilities that make his body perfect for sprinting, and therefore there’s no way he could have been a distance swimmer. He was too talented at sprinting for any coach to want to try and push him to swim longer events.

“My technique isn’t the best”

Alex Hardwick is a sprinter with a bit of a distance side to him at times. He came into college with a 45 100 free and a 4:39 500 free, proving his versatility.

Hardwick has a unique spin on why he swims sprint free. “I swam everything as a young teen. As I got older I found that when it came to power vs. technique,  I was a power swimmer. My technique isn’t the best, however I have a power that I believe is hard to learn, aquire and use. I also personally don’t care as much about how well I can hold a pace or be tactical. I just wanna dive in and establish myself and bury the competition.”

Hardwick then brought up a point that no one has addressed yet. “Also sprinters are relay swimmers as well, I loved team sports as a kid but knew I needed an individual side too. So as a sprinter I get to swim individually and also in relays that most distance swimmers don’t even think about.”

Being a sprinter and relay swimmer, I have to agree that relays are the best part of swimming for me personally. It makes me feel as though I’m competing for something bigger and there’s nothing better than that team camaraderie. Hardwick also mentioned that the decision came down to his technique, and he chose to be a power swimmer over a technical swimmer.

I have always seen myself as more of a power swimmer, and not just because my technique sucks.

Finishing to the wall

After hearing these individual cases, we must draw some sort of conclusion from our findings. My original theory was that distance swimmers start swimming longer races because they cannot sprint, and that sprinter continue to sprint because that is what they’re good at.

In many of the cases, this held true. Other than pure talent, the distance swimmers would not make great sprinters. They may have been able to get by, but their niche is swimming longer distances that require more attention to technique and stamina.

Sprinters, on the other hand, have always excelled at the shorter races and therefore have never needed to experiment with the longer distances. It’s also the last thing a sprinter wants to do, as they have gotten used to the shorter races their entire life.

As we read, not everyone takes a clear path to their swimming calling, but once a swimmer reaches an elite level, it is obvious what type of swimmer the athlete is. I think an important lesson to take way from this article is that neither group are the better swimmers. Each group has a different mentality, but each have equal merit.

Sprinters: The ones who want to be the fastest, most powerful ones in the water. From an early age, these swimmers have excelled at the shorter distances and were able to pick up speed immediately in races. They also love the relay aspect of sprinting, and tend to be the most confident swimmers in the pool.

Distance Swimmers: The ones who work day after day on perfecting their technique and pace work, and the ones who don’t need all the glory to feel satisfied. These swimmers never excelled at sprinting, and naturally gravitated towards the longer distance events as a way to stand out. They love the mental aspect of swimming in a race for over 10 minutes, and enjoy that the race is as much a psychological game as a swimming competition. 

Now the question is, which one are you?

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2 years ago

“Distance swimmers swim distance because at a young age they cannot sprint.” As a competitive distance runner, I can say the same is true for most of us. The distance chose us.

5 years ago

Distance swimmers can also swim mid distance events (200 and 400 free) and the painful events like 200 fly and 400 IM.

Sprinters are typically limited to just 50, 100, and occasionally 200 free with a 100 fly/back.

5 years ago

I’m pretty sure it’s just the way people are built because I’m a sprinter

6 years ago

Distance swimmers are willing to put in the work in practice and will tackle any challenge. Sprinters only like to go fast-nothing else. These are my observations

6 years ago

I trained distance in high school. I was the only person I knew who really loved distance and couldn’t stand sprinting. But I have bad shoulders, and after nearly every race I would be in tears because of the pain. So despite training distance all the time, I only swam the 1000 and 1650 once or twice a year at championship meets. When I got to college, I learned very quickly that it was impossible to sustain myself as a distance swimmer. Swimming the 1000 at a meet would leave me in so much pain that the trainers wouldn’t let me swim for almost a week, I was also on a strict yardage limit that made training distance very frustrating.… Read more »

7 years ago

But most swim races are in between. You’re leaving out all stroke, IM and basically all 100s of stroke and 200s, which make up your meets. I went from short to very long in my career, stroke to free, due to injuries. Sometimes an event does choose you. No one can deny the truly gifted splash and dash swimmers, or the hard-working milers, but that’s not swimming, day in and day out.

Mimi Ward
7 years ago

There’s also the aspect of the aging swimmer. It seems that post 40, one’s body can swim longer better than faster.

Brute Bradford
7 years ago

Distance swimmers need more courage, sprinters need better control of nerves.

About Aaron Schwartz

Aaron Schwartz

Aaron Schwartz Aaron Schwartz has been swimming since age 10 at CCAT Club Team. Although he's dabbled with many events, he prides himself as being a sprint breastroker and freestyler. He has always been interested in technology, and wants to attend the Goizueta Business School At Emory University. At Emory, Aaron …

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