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.