Is The ‘Cup Game’ a Legal Way to Decide a Swim-Off Winner?

Over the weekend, the University of Tennessee hosted a long course invitational to replace the canceled USA Swimming Pro Swim Series meet.

On the final day of racing in Knoxville, in the women’s 100 free, Tennessee teammates Megan Sichterman and Alex Gebel tied for 8th place in 58.92.

With only 8 spots available in the finals heat, this necessitated a tie-breaker. Most commonly, swimmers compete in a swim-off as a tie-breaker, but in this case, Tennessee opted for a different methodology: a reaction game.

A small disposable paper cup was placed on the ground between the two, both swimmers put their hands on their knees, and when a whistle was blown, both grabbed at the cup. While both swimmers made contact with the cup almost simultaneously, Sichterman got more “meat” and was able to rip it out of her teammate’s hand.

And thus it was decided that she would go to the A-Final, while Gebel would be relegated to the B-Final.

It wound up not mattering – there was a scratch that pulled Gebel into the A-Final as well, where Sichterman placed 7th (58.36) and Gebel 8th (59.18).

But, was the cup-grab game a legal way to decide the swim-off in the first place?

It turns out that it is.

According to USA Swimming rules, so long as swimmers, coaches, and the meet referee agree, in any alternative manner. The relevant sentence in the rule-book is below.

If this situation results in disputed qualifications, all swimmers having times tied or within the disputed times shall swim-off the event to qualify for the disputed place or places in the final unless the swimmers, coaches, and Referee mutually agree to resolve the tie in an alternative manner, such as coin toss or racing a different distance/ event.

In this case, the athletes were from the same team, so their coaches were unlikely to disagree. The athletes, of course, could have disagreed with their coach, but that would probably largely depend on the team culture. Once athletes and coaches agree, it’s unlikely that a meet referee would disagree, barring considerations like safety or timeliness. Even in the case of a sanctimonious official who wanted to impose their power on the situation, the coaches and athletes could still do whatever they wanted and then just have one athlete decline the swim-off if the referee tried to intervene.

We’ve seen an off-beat swim-off before: at the 2013 Art Adamson Invitational, a game of rock, paper, scissors was used to decide a swim-off between TCU’s Sebastian Arispe and LSU’s Tyler Crosson (also in the 100 free).

The format was a best-of-five, 1-2-3 shoot that saw at least four ties before a winner could be decided. Arispe took an early 1-0 lead, and Crosson the Tiger took round 2. Crosson then went up 2-1 in round 3, before a clutch Arispe came back to win two straight and earn a tie-breaking decision on scissors-over-paper. Just goes to show you that paper and water doesn’t mix: the last 9 rounds (including ties) of the battle didn’t have a single paper until Crosson’s fatal flaw.

“I don’t believe there is a more civilized and noble way to declare victor than a 5 game set of Rock, Paper, Scissors,” LSU head coach Dave Geyer said after the outcome was finalized. “Only battles in ancient Rome can match the intensity exuding from those two men.”

It turns out that the NCAA has no such explicit rule for ‘alternate manner’ of deciding a swim-off winner. While the Tennessee Long Course Invitational did not appear to be a formal NCAA meet, the 2013 Art Adamson Invite was. In that case, the same “we can do what we want so long as we agree” de facto rule applies – so long as coaches and athletes agree and are honorable, they can decide in any manner they want and just have the losing athlete decline the swim-off.

This got us thinking: what other alternate ways could there be to decide the winner of a swim-off? Here’s a few:

Alternate Ways to Decide the Winner of a Swim-Off:

1. A game of Flappy Bird

Even thinking about the intensity of this gives me an ulcer.

2. Swimming trivia contest

How many swim-offs were there at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? Two, but it should’ve been three before Ranomi pulled out of the 100 free semi-finals.

3. Diving for quarters

Now that NLI rules are loosened, you could even let the winning swimmer keep their haul.

4. 75 with Fins

America’s new favorite gimmick!

5. Watermelon War

Can you imagine Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian brawling over a greased-up water melon in the deep end?

6. Noodle races

You know the drill. Everyone on their noodle boat, first one to row themselves across wins. Hand paddles = DQ.

7. Staring contest

All those chloramines in the air add a fun extra challenge to this one.

8. Backward Swimming

Because forward swimming is too easy.

9. Game of pickleball

Phelps changed everything.

10. All out 25 sprint

Because who really wants to time trial the mile?


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3 months ago

Once saw a swim-off for 400IM. Winner got to swim another 400IM. Seems like a loss to me

4 months ago

Awesome, go vols!!

Big Mac #1
4 months ago


Reply to  Big Mac #1
3 months ago

🍉 💦

4 months ago

Maybe they could try a cage match next time.

4 months ago

Nice to see teams having fun and switching things up!

Salty Sailing Swimmer
4 months ago


4 months ago

So much fun!

4 months ago

Is the same true of FINA competition? I definitely remember a tie in a 100 or 200 fly a few years back, where the two competitors coasted until sprinting the last 25/50

Reply to  IVetoBreaststroke
4 months ago

It was the 200 FL at the 2019 WC, with Kenderesi and Ivanov. They were chumming it up before the race so it was pretty clear they had some kind of gentleman’s agreement to cruise the first 150 (they were like a tenth apart at the last wall), and winner takes all sprinting the last 50. Makes sense, cause pressing three 200 FLs in the span of 24 hours would be suicide.

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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