John Culhane swam for William & Mary, and has been swimming in masters and open-water races ever since. He teaches at Delaware Law School, and is a columnist for the on-line magazine Slate. His two daughters swim for the Friends Select Swim Team in Philadelphia.
As the parent of 11-year-old swimming twins, and as a life-long competitive swimmer myself, I am well aware of the many good things the sport offers. Readers of this story don’t need a refresher on that topic, but for me, anyway, the sport’s benefits include: teaching the value of goal-setting, and of learning to deal with both success and failure; learning to love exercise for its own sake and developing a life-long love of the water; exposing the children to one of the few sports where boys and girls train and compete together; and teaching them the value of teamwork.
But that final benefit has been watered down (sorry!) by the way swim meets are conducted today. And that brings me to the first on my list of simple things that could be done to make our sport even better:
1. Bring back the relays! In the three years that my kids have been competing in our local USA Swim meets, only one non-championship meet has offered these team-building events. What’s that about? Many kids swim out-of-their-minds fast on relays, and working on exchanges during practice is a concrete way to show the value of teamwork. Not to mention the roof-raising cheers that only relays engender, as the kids can put aside their own rivalries and get behind each other, fully.
The only answer I’ve gotten is that, at least in our Mid-Atlantic region, the meets are so stuffed that there’s no time for relays. But who says that every event needs to be offered for every age group, at every meet? Run a sprint-only meet, with a full complement of 4 x 50 relays. Run a distance meet with 4 x 200 freestyle relays (and 4 x100 for the 10 and under age group). This isn’t complicated.
2. On the subject of team-building: Whatever happened to dual meets? Y teams understand the importance of these events, where team totals take precedence over individual efforts, but most teams in our area — including ours — have no dual meets at all. Many of the kids who finish, say, 83rd at a USA meet, can feel like real contributors in the dual meet setting. They shouldn’t have to wait until high school to experience the high of beating their arch-rival team in a meet that comes down to the last relay.
3. This is the most radical of the suggestions, and the only one that would require a change at the national level: At least for the lower age levels, move from two-year to single-year groups. It is just nuts for a girl or boy who has just turned 11 to be ranked against a foot-taller, post-pubescent kid whose 13th birthday is a week away. In fact, USA Swimming recognizes that there’s a difference, because they already publish “motivational times” for single ages. Competition and time standards for championship meets should both be divided in this way.
What I’m proposing is actually a simple step that would add almost no time to meets (one or two extra heats, at most, spread over what is now one age group), and would provide further incentive to kids trying to reach their goals.
As we know, swimming is a challenging sport that requires an astonishing level of commitment, involves lots of pain, and invariably brings disappointment at some point (no matter who the swimmer). The steps I’ve outlined above are all geared to counter all that by adding one vital ingredient: fun.