The swimming test has been a graduation requirement at MIT since the 1940’s after a high amount of drowning-related casualties occurred during World War II. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic did not stop this rite of passage, but as with most things in 2020, the approach to the test has been altered to adapt to the new world.
Normally, the in-person test would occur during fall orientation and it was common for many freshmen to pass the requirement then. The test consists of jumping into the Beavers’ 8 lane, 50 meter pool feet first to simulate a more realistic situation than if they dove.
The pool is set up in short course yards for the test and students must swim 4 lengths nonstop of either front or sidestroke. They are allowed to swim backstroke as well, but only on the final length. If a student is unable to do that then they must take a 6-week-long swimming course in its place.
Alongside other academic courses, the test moved online and was restructured to be a “conceptual class” including four hours of American Red Cross learning, a quiz, and four essay questions based on different water safety scenarios. This online course was restricted to seniors who had yet to take the test.
MIT Director of Physical Education and Wellness Carrie Sampson Moore explained to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that the class was not intended to teach students how to swim, more so to “keep students safe and inspire them to learn how to swim.”
Some students found the online replacement course frustrating. Sarah Dohadwala, a biological engineering major who had attempted the test before but opted for the online course this year, told WSJ, “It was such a pain in the butt. It takes like four hours. Why? Just cancel the requirement!”
Others laughed at the competitiveness of the in-person test, which from Kyle Morgenstein’s perspective sounds as brutal as a swim meet warmup. “The person in front of you is sprinting, and there’s a person behind you also right on your toes,” the aerospace engineering and planetary science double major told WSJ.
“Everyone’s going faster and faster until you realize, I’m not a good swimmer! I can’t swim this fast!”
In the end, students still managed to have fun with it. Mechanical engineering majors Megan Ochalek and Srimayi Tenali had bought swimsuits and goggles in anticipation of the rite of passage before the pandemic. The gear didn’t get to see the inside of a pool, so they wore the goggles on their heads during the online course instead.
“We decided together, we might be doing this virtually but we did not buy these swimsuits for nothing,” Tenali said in her interview with WSJ.
Sampson Moore explained the importance of this test and why they opted to maintain the requirement while other schools, including Cornell, Dartmouth, and Colombia, waived their requirement this year. “We owe it to our students to teach them how to swim,” she told WSJ.