The most robust path to an Olympic Team is as a member of a free relay. Instead of the top 2 finishers, the top 6 (usually) qualify in the 100 and 200 free. In those events, simply making a final gives a swimmer an excellent chance to get on the team.
A Most Eloquent Hypothesis
SwimSwam co-founder Mel Stewart has a way to describe how to make an Olympic team once one qualifies for an Olympic Trials final, but since that description isn’t exactly fit for printing, we’ll relate it thusly: “Once you made a final, all you have to do is beat 2 people. There’s always a swimmer or two who shows up in an Olympic Trials final and doesn’t perform in all events. In a 100 and 200 free final, just don’t let yourself be the one who doesn’t show up for the final, and you’re in good shape.”
Note that Mel’s expertise and vision of the goal derives from the fact that he did all of his international damage individually as a butterflier, but also has an Olympic and World Championship medal as part of American 800 free relays.
Now, the Numbers
At the last 4 Trials, swimmers seeded 7th coming into finals finished 6th or higher more often than they finished 7th or 8th. From the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 trials, across all events, 7th seeds finished 6th or higher in 35 out of 52 events for women and 29 out of 53 for the men. 8th seeds finished 6th or higher 16 out of 52 times for the women and 13 out of 50 for the men (those men’s total numbers are off due to ties and some missing data). Here is a complete look at how often each final seed got each final place. The rows are the swimmer’s final place. The columns are their seed entering finals.
While a swimmer’s seed going into finals is highly correlated with their final place (only 1 top 2 seed finished 7th or 8th), it is not predictive of how well swimmers performs in finals. The median 8th seeded men’s swimmer out-improved the median swimmer in every other place. However, final place was highly correlated with how a swimmer performed in finals. The medians of how a swimmer’s time improved from qualifying almost uniformly increase from 1st to 8th for both men and women. Here’s the full list of swimmer’s median improvement in finals from their seed time sorted by both their place in finals and their seeded place in finals (i.e. male swimmers who placed 1st dropped a median of -1.1%, whereas male swimmers seeded 1st entering finals dropped -.1%) (negative means a swimmer got faster).
|Final Place||Seed||Final Place||Seed|
Note: This is the same stat as in this article, but the numbers are slightly different here. That’s because the old post included data from 2008 and 2012. This article includes data from 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.
Here’s a look at how the final time changes from seed are distributed:
The gaps between seed times entering finals are usually much closer than the spread in the final times. Here are the median time gaps between finals times and finals seed times in the last 4 Olympic Trials:
|1st to 2nd||0.6%||0.5%||0.7%||0.4%|
|2nd to 3rd||0.6%||0.4%||0.6%||0.5%|
|3rd to 4th||0.4%||0.3%||0.4%||0.3%|
|4th to 5th||0.4%||0.3%||0.3%||0.2%|
|5th to 6th||0.2%||0.1%||0.4%||0.2%|
|6th to 7th||0.2%||0.1%||0.3%||0.2%|
|7th to 8th||0.7%||0.2%||0.4%||0.2%|
The difference between swimmers seed times is usually much less than the typical marginal time changes. In the 100 and 200 free, this means that any swimmer that qualifies for the final can expect to make the Olympic Team by performing reasonably well. Even if they are seeded outside the top 6, usually someone else will add time and drop places. They just need to avoid being the swimmer who adds time.