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?