How well did the US team perform at Pan Pacs? There was a lot of concern and speculation over the effects of the long trip to Japan without sufficient time to acclimate to the time change as well as the short gap between Nationals and Pan Pacs. To that end, I thought it would be interesting to look at performance differences from Nationals to Pan Pacs. Pan Pacs is the major international meet of this calendar year, so the goal is surely for the US team to perform at its best there. Did they improve on their times from Irvine in Tokyo? There are certainly many confounding factors, and we have no way of knowing who was rested and to what extent at each meet (although obviously no one is ever rested). To simplify even further, I went ahead and just took the fastest time everyone recorded at each meet rather than just worrying about Prelims vs Finals. This isn’t entirely unreasonable, as for the US, the “B” Final at Pan Pacs is pretty significant too – and even Prelims for some events had the same kind of pressure attached to it!
Just looking at this one pair of meets gives us one data point, which wouldn’t say much of anything, so I also took as comparison the six previous years’ pairs: Nationals vs PanPacs in 2010 and 2014, Olympic Trials vs the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, and Nationals vs Worlds in 2013 and 2017 (the other two Worlds had their teams decided the previous year, so would not make for a meaningful comparison). Sometimes, an image can convey the message quickest. Here is a boxplot looking at the improvement in times from the national meet to the international meet, by year:
A negative number on the y-axis indicates that a swimmer in an event improved from Nationals/Trials to the appropriate International meet (whether the Olympics, Worlds, or Pan Pacs). For five of these seven years, the meat of the distribution is the same: half of the data ranges from -0.87% to +0.35% (that is, a 0.8% improvement to a 0.3% regression), and the median is negative in each year(from a 0.54% median improvement in 2013 to a 0.10% median improvement in 2017). You can see the thinly dotted lines marking out the common area. You might say the dotted area is a good guess for what the distribution should be.
But in 2014 and 2018, this box shifts up by nearly a half percent. These are the only two years with positive median, +0.30 and +0.20% respectively. The interquartile range is -0.39% to +0.90% for 2014 and -0.26% to +0.69% this year. In the other years, the worst 25th percentile was -0.71% and the worst 75th percentile was +0.35%. All sizeable, and visibly noticeable, differences.
Why might this be?
One popular fan theory, expressed on the comments under this article and in others, is that we simply do not care about Pan Pacs as much as we care about Worlds or the Olympics. But in the above chart, while 2014 and 2018 are quite different from the two Worlds and two Olympics years shown, 2010 is right in line with them. What was different about 2010? In all three years, Pan Pacs started 11 days after Nationals ended. It’s not that athletes simply had more rest in that one year. But while this year they had to travel to Tokyo (an 8 hour time change), and in 2014 they had to travel to the Gold Coast (a 7 hour time change), in 2010 Pan Pacs were held in Irvine. The very same place as Nationals. No travel, no time acclimation necessary. Perhaps it is the short turnaround with the long time change that is the cause of this nearly-half-percent regression, and not the fact that those athletes representing Team USA just don’t care as much.
Here’s a different way of looking at the same chart above. It’s all the same data, but I merged the 4 World and Olympic years together in the same distribution, as well as Pan Pacs in 2014 and 2018 (but kept the 2010 Pan Pacs separate) for clarity:
Improvement into the four “major” international meets and improvement into Pan Pacs in 2010 is quite similar – 2010 was about a little bit worse, but only by a tenth of a percent. But 2014 and 2018 were dramatically worse:
|worlds + olympics||-0.81%||-0.35%||+0.24%|
|pan pacs 2010||-0.73%||-0.18%||+0.35%|
|pan pacs 2014, 2018||-0.33%||+0.24%||+0.77%|
While the headline story of Pan Pacs going away will probably be our performance in the relays, and the commentator’s performance in announcing them, I can’t help but wonder how this meet would’ve played out if we gave ourselves more time in between Nationals and Pan Pacs, or more time to adjust to the time difference. The athletes themselves aren’t making excuses for their personal performances, but maybe we should?
EDIT: The original version of this article only focused on the years 2016-2018. The new version adds 4 more meets (2010,2012,2013,2014), which notably include two more Pan Pacs years, allowing for a more meaningful comparison.