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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Steve Crocker, a swim coach and engineer who designs aquatics facilities for Water Technology, Inc., and Danylo Proskura, the associate head coach at the Golden West Swim Club in California.
There are two different seasons and two different types of pools used for the sport of swimming. Long course pools are 50 meters in length and short course pools are half as long — either 25 meters or in some cases, 25 yards. The US is the only place in the world that trains and competes in 25-yard distances and we do this for all high school and college swimming championships.
The US is unique in that we have large high school and college swimming organizations hosting championships in every state and every college division each year. We also have USA Swimming with hundreds of USA Swimming clubs around the county. In most of the world, there is only club swimming which is probably a major factor to explain the success of American swimmers on the international stage.
The Olympic Swimming Competition is held in a long course pool. Surprisingly, many people who watch the Olympics are unaware that the pool they race in is over twice as long as their local 25-yard pool. Generally, the world swims a long course season from about January through August and a short course season from about September through December. FINA hosts world championships in both short course and long course seasons.
In the US, the short season is dominated by training and competitions in 25-yard courses. A 25-yard course is about 10% shorter than a 25-meter course which is barely noticeable. Times are roughly 10% faster in yards. In 25-yard meets there is the 500 free — not the 400 and the 1,650 — not 1500.
College Swimming consists primarily of NCAA, NAIA, and Junior College institutions — over 900 schools have swimming teams and championships in 25-yard courses. American college swimming is the international arena for athletes all over the world to train and compete during the college year. They have access to great facilities and are coached by many of the world’s top coaches. Many can use swimming to get a free or low-cost education.
The NCAA Division 1 swimming championships is considered to be one of the fastest international swimming meets in the world. It’s the culmination of a 7-month season and is made more intense by the team aspect. Interestingly, the rest of the world barely notices as the times (in yards) are completely foreign to the rest of the world.
It can be argued that such emphasis on 25-yard swimming does and injustice to college swimmers — American and international. One issue is that training and racing have been conducted over distances that are 10% short. Because pool floor markings, backstroke flags locations, etc. are unique in 25-yard pools, athletes spend time developing technique to those specific requirements which have to be unlearned during their long course seasons. International athletes are significantly penalized by the completion of a 7-month season without times which could be used to qualify for their national teams/international competitions.
A true “Olympic Pool” has dimensions of 50-meters x 25- meters. Interesting among 50-meter college facilities in the US is that the vast majority are only 25 yards wide (allowing 25-yard training and/or competition in either direction). These pools are less desirable than Olympic pools for hosting international events.
Competing frequently in the correct course is what is most important. In 1992, the author set a world record in the short course 50-meter freestyle with 100% of the training sessions being conducted in a 25-yard pool. Racing meters is more worthy of getting a proper experience for events like 200 and 400 stroke and IM, and 1500. But training meters is crucial in getting proper skills. There is an argument about how to train 200 LCM Free in yards, whether you should train 200 SCY or 500 SCY. But none of that is close in racing strategy and/or times.
There are record books and so much history based upon 25-yard swimming “you can’t just throw that away”. Yes, you can — we do it frequently in the sport of swimming when we make rule changes or allow new technology such as wedge blocks, bodysuits, etc. While you can’t convert records from 25 yards to 25-meters, converting an individual’s times from 25-yard to 25-meter is simple and accurate.
I argue that the advantages of switching short course swimming in the US to 25-meters far exceed the reasons for sticking with the status quo. In the NCAA Division 1 meets in 2019 there would have likely been 5 or 6 world records set. Instead, there were zero. At the end of 2019, the International Swimming League brought in a SCM Championship to the US. That made it possible for American athletes to set the world record and national records as well. Unlike the NCAA track and field championship, the world pays no attention to NCAA swimming. American and international athletes deserve to finish their college seasons with times that really count. Times that can qualify them for national teams, Olympic Trials, etc. Standardization of rules just makes sense. Why should swimmers practice different turns, etc. because the pool markings are odd for their championship meet. Why swim 10% shorter distances? Does this seem like a smart thing to do if you want to be successful against the world’s best?
It’s going to be an uphill battle to convince the governing bodies that it’s time to make a change.
Collegiate track and field used to compete in yards and have successfully transitioned to meters. We can too. If not now, then when?