The State of the Sprint in the States

Today I was having a conversation with a very experienced, well-respected coach, and somehow, 50 yard/meter swimming came up. He made a comment that team records in these events were probably relatively slow because the senior swimmers hardly ever swim those events. When I pointed out that most international meets have 50 meter races in all 4 strokes, his reaction indicated that he either didn’t realize this or hadn’t considered it.

It got me thinking about racing 50’s, and why they are so unpopular in the United States. The international swimming community has embraced these events since they really spiked in popularity at the beginning of the millennium, but the United States poo-poo’s on them. Aside from the 50 free, 50 yard and meter events are not swum at the senior level. They’re not official events for the NFHS (high school), the NCAA or NAIA (college), at the National Championships, the Grand Prix, or pretty much any other sanctioning body in the United States for senior-aged swimming.

When looking through the big national level, and sub-national level, meets in many of the other big swimming nations (South Africa, Germany, Italy, Australia) have been much more receptive of the 50 meter events since they were first recognized by FINA in the mid 90’s. I don’t know for a fact that all other nations in the world have a preponderance of 50 meter races, but all of the ones I checked did.

I think that 50 meter races are a great way to bring spectators to swimming, as they are really exciting for even those who don’t totally grasp what’s going on, especially in a short course pool. What a lot of big international meets are doing is working down to a “shootout” final for 50 meter races, where 2-4 swimmers line up and gun it out for 20-25 seconds. It’s about as good as it gets for short burst, high-excitement swimming, and would love to see more of it in the States.

As further evidence of America preferring against the 50 meter races, let’s look at the historical data since the 2001 World Championships: the first where the 50 fly, back, and breast were made a part of the official schedule.

Percentage of Medals won by American Swimmers at World Championships Since 2001

2001 WC 2003 WC 2005 WC 2007 WC 2009 WC Total
50 meter events 5/24 (20.83%) 2/24 (8.33%) 3/24 (12.5%) 7/24 (29.16%) 2/25* (8%) 19/121 (15.70%)
All other WC events 18/78 (23.08%) 19/78 (24.36%) 23/78 (29.49%) 24/78 (30.77%) 16/39 (20.51%) 100/390 (25.64%)

*There were 25 medals awarded as a result of a tie for the bronze medal in the women’s 50m freestyle

Thus far, Americans have clearly struggled in 50 meter events relative to the longer disciplines. To extrapolate the measure of success even further, from medalists to finalists: At the 2009 World Championships, the United States had 16.39% (34/209) of the finalists in events longer than 50 meters, versus only 10.94% (7/64) in the 50 meter events. In 2007, these numbers were 19.71% (41/208) and 15.63% (10/64) respectively. This data all seems to indicate that the United States, at the international level, struggle (relatively speaking) in the 50 meter races.

  1. Americans struggle in the 50 meter events and therefore they don’t gear their training towards them.- It would serve to reason that, if Americans struggled in the 50 meter events, and knew they would struggle in the events, that they wouldn’t spend as much time training them. Maybe some of the elite coaches found that American swimmers, for one reason or another, just couldn’t keep up with the international swimmers in the sprint distances, and thus created a culture of not focusing on them. Eventually, over the past 8 years, this attitude may have percolated down to the local level.
  2. Americans struggle in the 50 meter events because they don’t gear their training towards them.- The opposite of #1. It’s possible that American coaches don’t give legitimacy to these events, because it takes less training to be good at them, and thus choose not to train their top swimmers for the events. In this country, we have great access to coaching, facilities, training aides, training technology, and a great swimming infrastructure, and all of these lend themselves towards being great at longer races. Of course, Australia, which probably has the equivalent facilities, coaching, and perhaps even a better infrastructure, has been more accepting of the 50 meter races.
  3. The events are not swum at the Olympics, in college, or in high school.- It’s all about the Olympic Glory. Until very recently, the Olympics were the only swimming event that got any publicity in the United States, and so top coaches focused all of their training on Olympic events. Similarly, NFHS and NCAA swimming have no individual 50 meter events aside from freestyle. In the United States, high school and college are as important to many people as USA-Swimming. Perhaps in other countries, where they don’t have the same high school and collegiate athletics infrastructure, they can put more focus on club swimming, which culminates in FINA sanctioned events that usually include sprint races. Of course, since the Phelps juggernaut has hit the scene, more and more national and international events have been getting focus. This month, the IOC denied FINA’s request to add the sprint events to the Olympic schedule. Perhaps as meets like the World Championships, Duel in the Pool, and FINA World Cup continue to get more exposure, Americans will become fonder of the shorter events and they will make their way into more meets.
  4. The World Championships results don’t tell the whole story.- Maybe the reason the Americans don’t do well in the sprints at the World Championships is because the U.S. W.C. trials don’t include the 3 stroke sprint events. Instead, swimmers that qualify in the longer disciplines are thrust into the sprint events, and may not give it full effort. For example, at the 2009 World Championships, Matt Grevers and Aaron Piersol both failed to get out of the preliminary heats in the 50m backstroke, while Peter Marshall (who has since broken the World Record in the event) was left home. Adam Klein, who was the U.S.’s 2nd qualifier in the 200m breaststroke, swam the 50 and finished in 50th place. 50th! From the best swimming program in the world, we can’t find another swimmer to finish any higher than 50th? I know we can’t win every race, but we can do better than that. Of course, this alone can’t tell the whole story. There must be something else contributing towards the attitude of USA-Swimming towards the events that results in them being left off of the docket at the WC trials, and most other national meets. But this is probably a contributing factor to the poor results.
  5. Coaches’ egos get in the way.- An important part of coaching is feeling as though you still have influence over what athletes are doing. More often than not, coaches coach because they still have a competitive drive, but are past the point of their life where they can or will compete. To keep themselves motivated, coaches need this feeling as though what they are doing matters. In the 50 meter races, the coaches practices and training has the least effect over the swimmers success. The top 50 meter swimmers are almost always the ones with the most high-twitch muscle fiber. Michael Phelps is the best swimmer in the World, and trains as hard, if not harder, than any swimmer in the world, but never competes in 50 meter races. This is not an accident, rather it’s because he is simply not built for the races and would get blown away by the likes of Liam Tancock, Steffen Dibler, Cameron van der Burgh, etc. Not that those sprinters don’t train hard. But without any training, I’d bet that those guys’ times would suffer significantly less than would Phelps’, Grant Hacketts’, Paul Biedermanns’, etc.

I think it’s probably a grand collusion of all of these factors that conspire to create an atmosphere of anti-sprints.

So, what do you think is the problem? And what are your opinions on the 50 meter events. Would you prefer to see them featured more prevalently here in the states?

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Mavi Sampaio
6 years ago

You said it perfectly when you wrote “I think that 50 meter races are a great way to bring spectators to swimming, as they are really exciting for even those who don’t totally grasp what’s going on, especially in a short course pool”. But does swim meets in the US need more spectators? The US Olympic Trials was sold out every day, and so are all the big meets in country: High School State, Club State, YMCAs, etc. The sport of swimming in the US doesn’t need any “trick” to bring public to swim meets.

You mention that most of the countries in the world are embracing the 50s. But who is the best “swim nation” in the world (by… Read more »

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

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