MIT Students Learn to Swim Online

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.

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Jeetech Academy
1 year ago

This is a excellent article. Thanks for sharing great post.

Retired coach
1 year ago

True story: In my second year coaching on the college level, I had a young man from Nigeria in my beginner swim class. He had never been in water over his knees. I taught him freestyle, sidestroke and elementary backstroke, but he would always start sinking about 30 feet into each width of the shallow end. On the day of the final test (25 yards of any stroke) he announced to me that he wanted to swim breaststroke. I explained that it was too complicated for a beginner swim class, but he insisted he could do it because, “I read a book about it in the library last night.”
“Sure,” I thought, “learned how to swim by reading a… Read more »

Reply to  Retired coach
1 year ago

He conned you – actually was a great swimmer but wanted to mess with a prof.

Retired coach
Reply to  SwimFani
1 year ago

No, that was the recruit in the late 70s whose “HS best times” turned out to be his goal times!!

1 year ago

I learned to ride a motorcycle this way 😁

There was an episode on The big bang theory where Sheldon learned to swim online using the floor. Said he wouldn’t get in the water until he absolutely had to.

Sun Yangs Hammer
1 year ago

Just wait for swim practices via Zoom

Reply to  Sun Yangs Hammer
1 year ago

Breakout rooms for stroke sets!

Mark Nedza
1 year ago

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Learn how to “swim” via YouTube video! Next….How to ride a bike.” I hope the “swimmers” don’t try to swim on their own in actual water!

Reply to  Mark Nedza
1 year ago

My cousin cleared skydiving from a book and did great on his first and only jump – until he hit the ground

1 year ago

Brilliant – Im gonna scale Mt Everest! (Virtually.)

About Annika Johnson

Annika Johnson

Annika came into the sport competitively at age eight, following in the footsteps of her twin sister and older brother. The sibling rivalry was further fueled when all three began focusing on distance freestyle, forcing the family to buy two lap counters. Annika is a three-time Futures finalist in the 200 …

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