Why is a Swimming Mile only 1650 Yards?

  19 Braden Keith | April 25th, 2010 | Lifestyle

This is the first installment in a series of articles to research and unravel the mysteries of swimming.  These mysteries range from serious to silly, but always in good fun, and will hopefully help to satisfy your inner swim-nerd. If you have any good mysteries (or bad ones, we’re not picky!) please send them our way via the “submit content” page, and we’ll see if we can figure them out!

When is a mile not really a mile? When it’s measured in a pool.

Today’s question was inspired by an email I received from a guy named Paul Arvin. He is a life-long swimmer, having swum in high school, taught swimming in Malaysia, and done underwater photography for the World Wildlife Fund. He wondered why the 1650 yard freestyle is known as a “mile” when in fact it is 110 yards short of an actual mile (for those not familiar with feet and yards, a true mile is 1760 yards). It’s something I’ve always wondered, but have always just written off some strange misnomer that had something to do with the mathematical evil that is the Imperial system of weights and measures.

But no longer will I accept that as an excuse. So I set off across the internet and swimming community to discover  why we call 1650 yards a mile.

The first person I spoke with was Glenn Schroeder, a former age-group swim coach in Nevada.

TSC: Glenn, why are there only 1650 yards in a swimming mile?

Glenn: It probably has to do with those neat lap counters they use. If they went to 1750 yards, they’d have to add a 7 to the 10’s digit

TSC: But which is older, lap counters or the 1650?

Glenn: You got me there.

TSC:  And why not go to a  1700. That would still only require a 6.

Glenn: Because “1700” sounds too long.

I didn’t buy it, so I moved on. I started looking through results of old Olympics, and discovered that only one Olympics ever was swum in yards, which were the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The 1904 games included a mile swim that was a true mile. Unfortunately, the 1904 Olympics were swum in an artifical lake, rather than a pool, and as such was no help.

But if open-water swimming has a true mile (they still do today), then why can’t pool swimming get any closer? A 1750 or 1800 yard swim would be much closer. A key clue comes in looking through historical swimming records, such as these pool records from the North Sydney Olympic Pool.

Swimming pools in the United States, Australia, and the UK were often built in 55 yard distances in the early and middle part of the 20th century. Similar to 440-yard tracks, 55 yard pools were used because races could be made in convenient, even proportions of  a mile (880 yard half mile, 1760 yard mile, etc.). Looking through the records above, you’ll notice that there is both a record for the 1760 freestyle and the 1650 freestyle. That’s because, for a long time, the official mile distance in the United States was 1760 yards.

But then things changed.

The AAU (predecessors to USA-Swimming) relented and changed their long course meets from 55-yards to 50-meters in order to better prepare their swimmers for the Olympics. But the United States held firm with its short course pool at 25 yards, instead of the international meters. Large organizations training Olympians could afford the expense of converting their pools to 50 meters (which is about a foot short of a 55 yard pool) or building new ones, but to the tens of thousands of neighborhood and high school pools, this cost would’ve been prohibitive.

Henry Taylor of the UK, who was the first Olympic winner of the 1500m swim in 1908.

In international swimming, beginning with the 1908 Olympics (which were actually swum in a massive 100m pool built inside of a track oval), the 1500m freestyle was a logical standard distance event. At 1.5 kilometers, it made sense to the other 95% of the world that uses the metric system, and sporting fans were already familiar with the 1500m run that was a standard distance in the more familiar track & field discipline.

Once the United States switched to a system of 50-meter long course and 25-yard short course pools, they had to find a way to keep the two systems as similar as possible, so that when its athletes did travel to international competitions, they weren’t at too much of a disadvantage.

And this is where the 1650 freestyle came from. The closest emulation of a 1500m swim in a 25-yard pool is the 1650 freestyle (to be precise, 1500m=1640 yards, 1 foot, and 3.12 inches, give or take), so the AAU likely decided to replace the true old-fashioned mile with a newer, more worldly distance. People were so used to calling this distance the “mile” that the name lived on. So there you have it. It was that crazy Imperial system after all.

[Update: We got a great suggestion from one of our readers that the 66 lap swim was a result of Phillips 66’s major USA-Swimming sponsorship. Although it was an intriguing and amusing idea, from a marketing standpoint, the 1650 is not really a glamor event.

Our research shows that the Phillips 66 sponsorship of American Swimming started in 1973, whereas the earliest incarnation of a 1650 we can find is in 1959 in Australia. But that’s the kind of creativity we like here at the Swimmers Circle Mysteries!]

Now, as to whether USA-Swimming, the NFHS, and the NCAA should switch from 25 yards to 25 meter short course swimming is a whole different discussion for a different time. But for now, chalk this one up as a mystery solved.

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19 Comments on "Why is a Swimming Mile only 1650 Yards?"

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6 years 5 months ago

So you swim a standard 1500m, but call it 1650yds even though it’s nearer 1640yds and then pretend it’s a mile. That’s hilarious!

conspiracy theory????
6 years 5 months ago

I actually wondered the same thing many years ago and I was told (don’t know if there is any validity to this, but it sure does sound believable) that Phillips 66 was the major swim sponsor and they went with 66 laps to tie in with the company name, very smooth advertising, the phillips 66 mile…….hmmmmm? what do ya think??

5 years 10 months ago

I’m surprised that everyone challenges the 1650 short course mile, but not the 1500 long course mile! If we wanted to be closer to a mile in the US, we’d do a 1600 long course mile, and a 1750 short course mile. It’s either got something to do with the metric to standard conversion, or the fact that you have to do so many flipturns that it equals out compared to open water distances.

10 days 18 hours ago

The 1500 is like the metric mile. The 1500 in track is run internationally so I would assume that is where that comes from.

5 years 8 months ago

Thanks for an awesome article. Looking forward to reading more.

4 years 8 months ago

My Y requires 72 lengths instead of the 66 for each mile, if you are tracking for their 100 mile club. Or 200 mile club.

Robert Cunningham
1 year 1 month ago

I agree with NNN but I add laps to reach 40 to make up the kick offs of each pool end.

1 year 6 days ago

Thanks for a great article! You solved a tangle of opinions at my local swimming pool! I got my swimming training in the ‘early days’ in Illinois and we always did the 1760 mile in our workouts. I was not a long distance swimmer in competition so I never realized that the1650 had become the ‘mile’. Love the historical information and explanation.

Kirk Jensen
10 months 29 days ago

Either way you pour it, that’s a long damn drink of water!

Heze Clark
10 months 22 days ago

When I was swimming in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Then later I started coaching. I thought they changed from the 1760 to 1650 was because when automatic timing systems and touch pads came out they were looking for a distance that ended at even 50 yards because the pools are 25 yards long and a distance close to the equivalent to what was in a 50 meter pool. Before that if you go to an old pool like Royer Pool at Indiana University there is 1760, 880, 440, and 220 markings on the side of the pool. 200 meters = 218.8 yards so we used 220 yards which we use to swim 220 all four strokes. One quarter mile is 400 meters = 437.5 yards, so we did 440 yards. One half mile is 800 meters = 875.2 yards so they used 880 yards. Then we used 1760 yards because it was a mile. Timers with stop watches would go to the side of the pool and when the swimmers swam past the markings they would stop their watch. When touch pads came out this all changed. I believe the first Olympics with touch pads was 1968. I also believe in the 1950’s much more emphasis in actual mile than today. Don’t know if this is the actual answer but that is my take. I believe they should have made the 1650, 1800 yards because we all know in that distance most swimmers glide at least 40 yards or more over that distance then back then with all of the kicking underwater today. My father Jim Clark use to time us for 1800 on the first day of practice in the fall and occasionally during the season to measure our improvement. He said we glided 40 yards so we were actually swimming a mile.

Heze Clark
10 months 22 days ago

In addition to the previous post. The 1650 yards is less than one mile. But they changed the 880 yards to 1000 yards which is more than one half mile. We use to swim 440 yards at some meets and 400 yards at some meet. They changed that to 500 yards which is more than one quarter mile. We also use to swim 220 yards at some meets and 200 yards at some meets, and they changed that to 200 yards which is less than 200 meters or one eighth of a mile. So some distances was more than the mile equivalent and some less than mile or part mile equivalent. The only thing never changed was we used 200 and 400 for the I.M. Of course this was after Butterfly became a stroke in the early 1950’s. Before that there was a 150 I.M and 300 I.M. because butterfly was not legal stroke until the early 1950’s.

Bob Malloy
6 months 26 days ago

Thank you . I’m 62w/ severely arthritic feet . The 72 laps laps I swim daily is the only pain free time in my day. I’ve heard many theories of the “real ” mile. I settled on doing 72 lap mile after watching a 70 year old woman do 144 laps daily

5 months 13 hours ago

oh- I was figuring that the distance was discounting the fact that swimmers get a “free” push off the wall at every end.

3 months 6 days ago

Thank you. This was fun to read.

Barbara Midkiff
3 months 6 days ago

So, in a 25 meter pool, it is necessary to swim 33 laps to complete a mile?

Mason Hale
2 months 11 days ago

In Austin, Texas we hold the annual Deep Eddy Mile, which is swum in the oldest manmade pool in Texas, Deep Eddy (now of Vodka fame), which is 33 1/3. 53 lengths of a 33 1/3 yard pool results in a 1766 2/3 yard swim — pretty darn close to 1760! http://amswimassoc.com/demile.html

Rich Oldrieve
2 months 3 days ago

In the 1970s, the world of high school track converted to the metric system. 400 meters is actually very close to 440 yard. only about 0.7 seconds shorter for the 400 for an Olympic runner. Nonetheless the high school track and field association had the sense to mandate all new tracks be made as metric tracks. Why high school swimming didn’t mandate the same is beyond me. By now, most pools would be metric. And since most major competitions are competed in university pools, the major swim meets would have all been in metrics long ago. Furthermore, in the past two decadess most cities and/or schools have put up new-fangled rec center pools that have slides, wading pools, and lazy rivers to go along with the “competition pool.” Consequently, most high school dual meets would be the correct metric distance by now.


About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

The most common question asked about Braden Keith is "when does he sleep?" That's because Braden has, in two years in the game, become one of the most prolific writers in swimming at a level that has earned him the nickname "the machine" in some circles. He first got his feet …

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