Are Elite Swimmers at Futures Championships a Problem?

Last weekend’s USA Swimming Futures Championships were arguably the best those meets have ever been.

In part, the results were a success thanks to big swims by true “future” qualifiers for the next-level meets, like Gracie Weyant, and 15-year old Lily King (not to be confused with Lilly King).

In part, the meets were fast because we saw more-than-usual senior-aged swimmers, especially those who we would normally see at the US National Championships, racing at the meets.

That was especially true at the College Station site, where several undergrads and post-grads that are part of the Texas A&M University group made appearances. That includes US National Team member Sam Stewart, who has trained there for two months, and Olympian Sydney Pickrem, who pulled out of the Commonwealth Games meet for Canada this weekend but raced at Futures instead.

On some level, these moves make sense. It is an opportunity for high-level, prelims-finals racing without leaving home. For Stewart, the opportunity was a good one, because he went a new best time in the 200 IM.

But this raised a lot of eyebrows about whether opportunities were being taken away from swimmers for whom the Futures Championships were designed: athletes looking to make the leap from Sectionals meets to National meets.

Why Do Futures Championships Exist?

When these Futures Championships were created, they were created with a very specific goal in mind: to create a meet for swimmers to bridge the gap from Sectionals meets to National meets. There are about a dozen Sectionals meets each season, and just two national meets: Junior Nationals and Senior Nationals.

Futures Championships originally were restricted from swimmers with times for bigger national meets. In the first year, athletes with one or more Nationals cuts could not attend. In 2016, that was changed to swimmers with one or more US Open standard swims, which at the time were usually the same at Olympic Trials standards in long course, but with a matching short course standard.

This ideal remained intact as recently as 2019 – the last Futures meets before the pandemic. Then, swimmers could not have standards for Nationals and swim Futures, except in one specific case: Futures meets began on August 1, and if a swimmer hit their first Nationals cut after June 3, they could still swim Futures, but not that event where they had a Nationals cut.

When Did It Change?

This all changed coming out of the pandemic. When Futures resumed in 2021, the “time ceiling” rules were gone. That made sense in a lot of ways – At the time those meets were planned, everyone was just looking for opportunities to race, and a lot of the real specific mission-statement stuff was set to the side.

The rule didn’t return this year either, though the meet was expanded to 5 sites (it began with 3), providing more opportunities. Overlapping the meets with Nationals also disincentivized elite national-caliber swimmers from attending, because they had *another meet* to race at.

Is This a Problem?

That depends on who you ask. I don’t love it, but with just a handful of these elites showing up at any one meet, I do think the ‘problem’ has been overblown. Afterall, young swimmers love racing against their heroes – the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come often in most sports.

Some of the people bothered by this are club coaches or parents of young swimmers who are getting bumped down a spot or two by the “elites.” We always talk in swimming about how you’re “only racing the clock,” but it becomes increasingly-clear year-after-year that this is not really true.

But I agree that the optics of it are not great, and that was not the purpose of these meets when they were created.

We’ve heard similar complaints about Sectionals in the past, and that bothers me less. For one, we have to give elites somewhere to compete – there aren’t enough National Championship meets to go around. Plus, those meets are more of a regional designation (Sectionals) than a purpose designation (Futures), even in name.

The difference-of-opinion could be a recency bias, because Futures meets were created in my lifetime, and Sectionals were not. But I still think I agree with that dichotomy in my mind, even though there’s a “ladder” of sorts that USA Swimming has developed.

Plus, with fewer Futures meets, the energy gets ratcheted up from “a fast meet” to “a championship meet” in a hurry.

But ultimately, we want the best swimmers racing at the biggest championship to end their season. That’s what we want of all professional and elite level sports, right? The best racing the best at their best. So I think USA Swimming should continue to make these Futures meets unattractive to true elites.

I think that Sam Stewart‘s breakout swim in the 200 IM in College Station was great, but I would have loved to have seen it against Shaine Casas’ breakout in the 200 IM in Irvine.

So What Could Be Done to Fix This?

Scheduling on an overlap with Nationals is a great idea, and probably solves a big piece of the problem.

I would love to see USA Swimming go back to a ‘time ceiling’ program at Futures meets. I don’t think having swimmers with Junior Nationals cuts is really a problem – there’s more value, from a “Future” standpoint, to an athlete getting a prelims/finals swim at Futures than finishing 98th at Junior Nationals.

I could even be okay with a ceiling that said, maybe, “if you only have a Nationals cut in one event, you can still swim at Futures.” Allowing a developing swimmer to race six events at Futures could again be a superior experience than racing one event at Nationals.

I’ve heard some people propose an age-limit for Futures, and that is something I am adamantly opposed to. Picture a 19-year old swimmer, a late bloomer, and the size of the chasm between Sectionals and Nationals (because they no longer have a Junior Nationals option). That’s huge. The meet’s purpose was never stated as a “stepping stone for junior athletes,” but rather a stepping stone between local and national championships.

I would be okay with some kind of a ‘sliding scale’ on the time ceiling, however. Perhaps if a swimmer is over a certain age, like 21 (the age when most are wrapping their college careers), a one-Nationals-standard cap could be put in place.

I think it could also be cool to give each Futures meet host a few “wildcard” entries, similar to a sponsor’s exemption in golf or tennis. Allow them to bring in a small handful of local names, who might not want to go to Nationals, to pose for photos or sign autographs or whatever other arrangements the meet host might make.

Maybe I would feel more strongly if I had a swimmer who was negatively-disadvantaged by the presence of “currents” at the “Futures” meets, but so long as those elites are showing up and taking the event seriously as a championship event (Sam Stewart, for one, clearly was), I don’t really mind it – at the current level. But I do recognize that the slope could be a slippery one, especially in the current atmosphere where elites are increasingly-often looking at ways to avoid pressure while racing.

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1 month ago

In my personal unimportant opinion, this meet always felt more of a “Participation Trophy” (money grab) meet than anything else.
Sort of like naming a meet the “Junior Olympics” when in fact, it’s probably the furthest thing from any actual “National Junior Team” meet (if not times alone, then even the age ranges).

3 months ago

Summer Nationals should absolutely be the last meet of the year, with all “pre nationals” meets being in the last 20 days of July. Nationals should be August 13th or later. Junior Nationals should be the following week. This increase suspense and intensity for Nationals, while giving everyone and anyone a chance to have qualified in every event they possibly can, with the culmination meet being “Nationals”, period.

Man No. 12
3 months ago

It would be interesting to get the perspective of those elite athletes in College Station. Several swimmers and their families were not happy that their championship meet was just against their teammates in their home pool. While they saved costs, some would’ve preferred to test themselves against elite swimmers that they don’t train with every day. They should’ve had that choice. Those with trial cuts should’ve been in Irvine. This season should’ve been prep for US trials or other international LCM trials and competition, so they should be racing against top athletes from all over the US & the world in the few LCM seasons they have. Instead they got to race their teammates (again) and HS swimmers.

Reply to  Man No. 12
3 months ago

There were many HS swimmers who made the older swimmers work hard for their spots in College Station.

Man No. 12
Reply to  SwimTaxi
3 months ago

I think you read too much into that last sentence. I’m taking nothing away from the HS athletes. There were some very fast ones there and were fun to watch. There are also fast HS swimmers at Nats & Jnr Nats. But the previous comment was in perspective of the College swimmers that are already at the next level. Same context as the article. What they’re prepping for. That meet was not the “most” ideal championship meet for a lot of them.

Coach Cwik
3 months ago

Let’s change the Name of the meet. Junior Nationals should be the 18 and under National Championships. Futures should be the Come One Come All Championships. Futures was meant to be part of the progression to Nationals. Now, it’s just another money marker meet.

Dee swam swam
3 months ago

I think 19&Os should only get 1 finals heat opportunity and cannot score for their club team (idk how to make that happen). I also have the same issue with Sectionals on USA Swimming they had Sectionals Max Qualifying times but I have never seen it enforced.

I think some of these older swimmers should get opportunities to race but it should be meets like Speedo Grand Challenge (hosted by NOVA- Irvine) or Ultraswim (by swim mac).

These meets strategically placed is where they should be instead of flooding these Sectionals and Futures meets that are geared toward the 18&U and taking opportunities away from them.

Or since the LSCs have a SR travel fund they need to… Read more »

Reply to  Dee swam swam
3 months ago

Sectional Max Qualifying times are just the fastest times the hosts of the meet are allowed to make the cuts. Not how fast someone can be there.

Reply to  Dee swam swam
3 months ago

That’s not what Speedo (Sectional) Max cuts are…. They are the fastest that the cut is allowed to be since each location gets to set their own standards. As standards fluctuate, if a swimmer achieves the max cut, they know they are qualified for any Speedo Sectionals.

3 months ago

If swimmers are bothered by the fact that they are not making finals, they can either swim faster or target slower meets. My teammates and I swam at Futures knowing that it would take significant lifetime bests to make finals, versus if we had rested for an LSC or sectionals meet, we could’ve been getting second swims in all of our events. It’s a give-and-take that each swimmer must face: am I ok with probably only getting one swim at this higher level meet, or should I go to a lower level meet for two chances?

I’m also glad the conversation isn’t centered around age-restricting the Futures meets like some of the other articles’ comment sections. You don’t magically qualify… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by thezwimmer
3 months ago

I have complained about the college swimmers at the Futures meet selfishly because I know it’s hard for swimmers aged 15 to 18 years old to be successful at this level. But, at the same time, traveling in this country at the moment is utterly insane. We pulled out of the Geneva meet (flights & travel into Cleveland) to drive to Pittsburgh because it was going to be more reliable and cost effective for our team.

Coach Cwik
Reply to  ReneDescartes
3 months ago

I have no problem with College swimmers at Futures, as long as they don’t have Junior or Senior National cuts.

James Beam
3 months ago

You said it best that the optics aren’t good when elite swimmers are at Futures. I agree with this. I also agree that there shouldn’t be a cap on age at Futures- why penalize the late bloomer? I also agree that having an elite level swimmer brings the energy up for a race or event. At the end of the day, I think some sort of time ceiling or if you have XX Jr/SR nat cuts, you can only swim Y race at Futures, and it can’t be the event that you have JR/SR nat cuts in…

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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