SwimSwam Discussion: Why is College Swimming Exploding?

Welcome to SwimSwam’s feature, called simply SwimSwam Discussion. We might rename it at a later point in time (Hospitality Room, anybody?), but for now that’s what we’ll call it. In this series, we’ll take a question about swimming, usually geared toward the more hardcore of our nerds, and pose it to our audience. These questions will be based on real-life conversations SwimSwam staff has had with real-life swim fans, usually coaches, and we will invite our audience to discuss the subject in the comments section.

Please note: these discussions will be held to a higher standard of civility because of their constructive nature. If you’re not typically a constructive commenter, plan to be moderated.

Today’s discussion comes from a conversation I had with a top-25, NCAA coach via text message.

All of a sudden, college swimming in 2017 has exploded. The pre-Olympic 2016 year was fast, but there’s been no post-Olympic hangover like many expected – the improvements have accelerated.

Conference record books are almost unrecognizable after the last few weeks. The pace of acceleration of those records is not explained by the historical improvement curves we’ve seen. Every level of college swimming has gotten faster – Division 2, Division 3, NAIA – and most noticeably, Division 1 swimming.

The impact has been seen in both genders, but at the Division 1 levels, when simply comparing cut-lines for NCAAs, it’s been the most outlandish.

A few examples:

  • With the ACC and Pac-12 (as of posting) still left to swim, the 30th-ranked 500 freestyler in the country is Aidan Burns at 4:17.08. Historically, about 30 500 freestyles are invited to NCAAs. Last year, that 30th line fell at 4:17.73, which is already 7-tenths behind this year’s pace, with still many, many swims to come.
  • In the 1650 free, 30th place currently sits at a 15:00.32 – almost identical to what it took to qualify for NCAAs last year. But, with a few more quick swims from ACCs and Pac-12s, that cut line will probably fall to somewhere in the 14:56 range – at least 4 seconds faster than last year.
  • Similarly, in the 200 fly, the 30th-place time is already slightly faster than what was invited to NCAAs last year, with 2 big meets and last chances left to swim.
  • 5 swimmers have already gone under 19 seconds this season, before NCAAs. Last year, 5 went under 19 all season, and only 2 had done it at the same point of championship season. Last year, 25 swimmers went under 19.5 all season. This year, 30 have already done it, with MACs, Pac-12s, ACCs, last chance meets, and NCAAs all left to swim their 50 free finals.

So, if we all accept that the improvement curve in NCAA swimming has accelerated, what is driving it? Is it a fluke season that will see a correction at some point? Is rest and recovery technology evolving that quickly? Here’s some theories, generated mostly by anecdotal conversation and hypothetical thoughts:

  • Since the NCAA expanded the number of individual swimmers invited to NCAAs, could swimmers who previously would have been just solid 6th-8th place scorers at conference meets found new motivation? A new hope of actually qualifying for NCAAs that keeps them more engaged?
  • Has there been a fundamental, wide-spread shift in training methodologies? If this is the case, the most common shift seems to be an incorporation of more race pace speed work into training plans. Not necessarily full-blown, Michael Andrew, USRPT, but more and more coaches nationally seem to be embracing the value of full-speed race workouts.
  • With such huge shifts especially in the men’s distance freestyles, is the shift specifically in more precise speed workouts for distance swimmers, a la Katie Ledecky and Haley Anderson, who have had success by training for mile swims (and longer) with lots of at-pace 100s?
  • Along similar lines, more top programs seem to have an “any given Saturday” approach to their seasons. Gone are the days where fast swims come only in December and March. Eddie Reese, head coach of the two-time defending champion Texas Longhorns, suits his guys up for fast exhibition swims multiple times a year. The cries of “tapered for dual meets” alone should ring the increasing frequency of fast swims at meets that don’t carry a direct impact toward the ultimate national championship meet. Are coaches employing more in-season drop-tapers for quick hits of speed? Is there some unstudied physiological impact of these drop tapers that is worth further research? Is it a psychological impact – fast swimming breeding better engagement throughout the season, with engagement ultimately being one of the core drivers of success?
  • The swimmers coming through the NCAA right now were born approximately in 1995 through 1999. That means they were 2-6 years old when Michael Phelps broke his first World Record, 5-9 years old when he won his first Olympic gold medal, and in the pivotal 9-13 years old age group when he became a sporting immortal with 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games. Is this just the tipping point of when swimming became a more viable choice for adolescent swimmers, and the caliber of athlete remaining in the sport dramatically shifted?
  • Have improvements in suit technology, or even willingness and frequency of use of tech suits, skewed the mid-season analysis?

We’re curious to hear what you think. Do any of the above suggestions hold water? Do you have any other hypothetical suggestions? What research needs to be done to capture these improvement curves and disseminate the causes more widely?

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4 years ago

Thanks for writing this! The thing that I so frequently look to is the 2008 “phelps effect” in youth swimming. I have absolutely no data but my gut tells me that there was a lot more youth swimming after 2008. If you started swimming in 2008 and were 10 years old you are now 19 years old (give or take on the month you were born) this is the typical age of a college freshman. If you start swimming earlier and recognizing a talent earlier in life you will be able to cultivate that talent and make better all around swimming in America.

Reply to  PKWater
4 years ago


Just to add to this: Tim Duncan was said to be a pretty good swimmer at 14. He was 6 feet tall at the time and I think I read that he was 4:10 in the 400 LCM. Kris Humphries had a national age group record at 10 years old. What if these guys had stuck with the sport? What could a 6’10” athlete of Tim Duncan’s caliber go in the 400?

Post-Phelps, the respect swimming gets from non-swimmers is orders of magnitude higher. This means more kids are going to try the sport and more kids are going to think it’s cool enough to stick with it. The more athletes in the pool, the higher the quality of… Read more »

4 years ago

Phelps theory. Can be seen with how much faster 15-18 year old swimming is now as well.

4 years ago

In addition to the Phelps theory, I think that post Olympic years ought to be faster anyway. Everyone at the NCAA level spent last summer doing a crazy amount of work in preparation for OTs. Even those that didn’t make it got a real good look at what that hard work can do, both in their swimming, and seeing guys like Dressel, Held, Haas, etc making it after their freshman and sophomore years of college. That work is also banked for the future, and a lot of swimmers come into the year with a larger aerobic base from the summer LCM training than usual, and can focus on the speed and underwaters. Larger aerobic base and larger motivation.

4 years ago

Agreed, the Phelps effect. Phelp’s success has brought tremendous publicity to the sport and encouraged many more youth to take up swimming.
Also, the addition of more sprints (50s, 200 relays) has encouraged more folks to get started and stay with it, with some eventual working their way up to longer distances.
The growth of opportunities for women has also drawn in more boys – parents with multiple kids like a sport where all their kids can go to the same practices and meets.
And last but not least, the “jammer style suits” have taken away they stigma that drove many, particularly young boys, away because they disliked the skimpy speedos.

Reply to  Wahooswimfan
4 years ago

It seems really trivial for all of us serious swimmers, but that’s actually a great point about the jammer suits! How many boys in the 10-13 yr old range have avoided swimming b/c they didn’t want to wear a “speedo” (briefs)? That’s no longer an issue.

4 years ago

There are three factors not mentioned above that may be important:

1) The year of really good pre-Olympic training is paying dividends in the next year;
2) There were a decent number of swimmers who redshirted the Olympic year (okay not too many to account for this effect, but it probably has a small effect on a few cut lines)
3) Swimmers who were Olympic hopefuls really did not focus on peaking in SCY, especially not pre-NCAAs. I think this is a really important one.

4 years ago

Along with the Phelps theory, maybe it’s more that club/age-group swimming has moved more towards race-based training rather than just grinding out 10k+ workouts, thereby keeping more swimmers in the sport longer and leading to less burnout and injury, therefore, allowing “better” overall athletes to flourish in college swimming

Swim on
4 years ago

This is a great topic- those who invest the time in the sport need to have this discussion and similar ones. We learn from each other and from our experiences.

I’ll add a new thought: I think the club/hs coaching has improved a ton in the last 10 years or so. Athletes going into school are simply better- faster, stronger, and better prepared for collegiate swimming. They’re starting from a better foundation, and therefore they can reach greater heights in the four short years they have. The frosh of 2017 are hungry too!

I also think that college swimming/diving has become a bigger event in its own right. NCAAs is always important, but opening it up the way… Read more »

4 years ago

Increased use of race-pace training. I’ve seen quite a few age-group swimmers get tremendous results from adding substantial race-pace training into their workouts. I’m not talking the full MA-USRPT thing here, just more work at race-pace. I also know a college coach who totally changed the team’s ranking n the conference by, “doing more work at race pace and more work off the blocks in practice.”

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. 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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