Ahead of this weekend’s final match in Budapest, Hungary, the International Swimming League has announced a new race trial of an 800 free for possible inclusion in future seasons of the league. The race will take place at 18:00 Central European Time, after the conclusion of Day 1 of the Grand Final of the 2020 ISL season.
The trial race, which will be done with only male swimmers, will feature 3 swimmers from the 2020 ISL season – Mikhail Romanchuk (Aqua Centurions), Felix Auboeck (New York Breakers), and Zane Grothe (DC Trident) – whose seasons are over (and therefore won’t impact the team battle). The league has also imported 5 other swimmers to participate: Akos Kalmár (Hungary), Damien Joly (France), David Aubry (France), Henrik Christiansen (Norway) and Lander Henrickx (Belgium).
While the league has generally shied away from distance races to this point, the league has found a format that it’s interested in.
Participants earn points from their positions at three checkpoints in the race – 100m, 400m and 800m. The winner is the swimmer with most points collected.
Points are awarded on a sliding scale. At the 100m and 400m checkpoints, the first-placed swimmer gets 9pts, second place receives 7pts, third placed 5pts, with 3pts awarded for fourth and 1pt for fifth.
At the 800m finish, points are awarded to all swimmers on a sliding scale from 9pts for the winner to 1pt for eighth. Jackpots will each be awarded, if relevant, at each split, with swimmers able to ‘steal’ their opponents’ points. The total ‘team points’ awarded become the aggregate of points earned at the three checkpoints, minus any penalty points (including -1 for finishing outside the cutoff time for the whole 800m of 7:56.00).
Under this format, there is a maximum possible of 87 points available for the race. That’s 2 more than the current highest-scoring race, ‘skins,’ which have 85 points available.
This gives rise to possible strategies like what we’ve seen in skins, where a team that was short on distance swimmers could enter their best 200 freestyler, for example, have them win top points at the first two splits, and take what they can get for the rest of the race, still coming out ahead of teams with swimmers who actually placed high at the final touch.
The concept is similar to criterium racing in road cycling, or the elimination mile in athletics, where it is not just the final time that matters, but the intermediary splits.
“The 800m freestyle pilot features some of the best swimmers in the world at this distance and the ISL is keen to give them a taste of the atmosphere and excitement of Season 2020,” ISL CEO Andrea Di Nino says.
“We are always exploring ideas for thrilling new races and this is a good opportunity to test new formats for the future. This event potentially adds even more unpredictability, intrigue and excitement.”
Prize money will be awarded for the 8 swimmers participating in the trial.
He added: “We will analyze the outcome of this test and hold discussions with our stakeholders on different formats for the future.”
Among the challenges that inclusion of an 800 free would see are that the ISL would have to make a pretty substantial change in the fast-moving format of the meets to fit the race into the existing 2-day by 2-hour time slot. That package is already packed tightly enough that the end of the day’s television broadcast has, on occasion, cut off the final team scores in a rush to jump to the next show.
This could also fundamentally alter the way swimmers train for the 800, as it will no longer be enough to simply have the best 800 time, regardless of how one gets there.
But the idea will open up more opportunities for distance swimmers to participate in the league, which has been one of the few complaints from within the ‘participant’ community (coaches and athletes), who have otherwise been pleased with the athlete-facing presentation of the 2020 ISL season.
The league would likely have to expand rosters by a spot to add the event as well, with the current 12-individuals-per-meet already resulting in challenges to entries.