What’s Going On In Age Group Swimming

The biggest story of an otherwise toned down World Championship Trials meet is obvious. There is a generation of teenage stars, particularly male,  in American swimming right now of the likes we have never seen before. With the retirement of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte stands alone as the last prominent member of the previous best generation in American swimming. While there are some good to great American swimmers right now in their 20s, they don’t match up with the star power that Phelps, Peirsol, Hansen and Crocker et al brought with them at the turn of the century. No, that will fall to this next group. Which of course, begs the question: why? Why all of a sudden are there so many future potential stars in the age group ranks?
 
 
One reason I haven’t heard discussed is the impact that the great demographic change in the American national team we’ve seen over the last four olympic cycles. As the ages of swimmers at the top has pushed up and up, the club level has become more and more of a developmental rung in the ladder. This was very disruptive, particularly for coaches who had spent their careers trying to work to the top of the ladder and build their clubs, only to find that college swimming and ultimately post-graduate centers were becoming the new top of the ladder. Clubs also had to adjust their development systems for swimmers that had longer careers. No longer was it was important for a swimmer to max out their potential for an Olympic spot in their teenage years.
 
 
This has led to a dramatic increase in swimmers progressing well from age group to age group. The prevailing wisdom used to being a top age group swimmer actually meant you were going to crash and burn later on. That is no longer true. Jack Conger and Ryan Murphy are good examples of this. So is Justin Lynch, who just yesterday took down a Phelps NAG record, two years after putting up a 54 second 100 butterfly at age 14. Missy Franklin is a great example of an age group phenom who went all the way to becoming the best swimmer in the world and continues apace.
 
 
One critical factor that pushes these results along is the now very easy ability for swimmers and coaches to compare their results nationally. No one gets to live in a bubble, dominating local age group competition. Everyone knows where the bar is being set and works to reset it. Perhaps no coach has embodied all of this more than Sergio Lopez, who had single-handedly completely rebooted what it means to be a “Club Coach” in America.
 
 
Sergio’s teams have performed so well over the last few years that it’s probably time we all consign ourselves to the fact that we shouldn’t even say “maybe” before we say “the best swimming coach in America”. One of the biggest common mistakes people make in evaluating coaches is to only look at their best result and judge them on that. This ignores that there is a lot of volatility and chance involved in one top swimmer. It is far more important to keep digging to see what’s beneath. Sergio Lopez (and the coaches around him at Bolles) are having great results with a lot of swimmers. That’s what truly matters.
 
 
It’s comforting to know that so much is changing for the better at the club level. The spectre of centralized post-graduate centers has done much to help that over the last year. With college swimming in as precarious a position as it has ever been, I have a feeling that swimming will need the clubs more than ever in the future.

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Jason
8 years ago

The answer is the Jammer. The first generation of kids who wore jammers is now growing up and getting fast. In the past, speedos were worn by age groupers and once you got to a certain age you quit swimming cuz boys are self conscious in speedos. Along comes the practice jammer in the 2000s and boom boys stayed with the sport. Thats my hypothesis at least.

Reply to  Jason
8 years ago

I would think that kids nowadays are Much Taller Stronger and hit their growth sput much earlier.. we will have to wait these kids at 20 21 years old to really check it out

Danjohnrob
Reply to  Jason
8 years ago

I definitely think you have something there, especially for retaining boys in that critical 12-14 period!

Lane For
Reply to  Jason
8 years ago

Speedos and being “self-conscious” had nothing to do with it. That was the suit worn back then and no one gave it a thought. Maybe today’s generation feel it was a little too small, but there lies the generational differences.

mcgillrocks
Reply to  Jason
8 years ago

interesting theory. my 10th grade history teacher talked about swimming as the meeting of the infinite and the infinitesimal

it would be strange to think something as mundane as a different type of swimsuit would be helping produce a crop of immensely talented young swimmers

however i notice from personal experience once someone gets to the age of 14, 90% of swimmers wear speedos (often with dragsuits, which i guess is some extra “coverage”)

Kirk
Reply to  Jason
8 years ago

Speedo would like to know where you would like your royalty check sent? They love when we in the swimming community refer to a brief suit as a speedo;) oh by the way Kleenex just called and wants to know if they can sponsor you? Seriously, good points about ways to overcome being exposed at an awkward time for boys. More likely all of the above (or below ) comments that lead to improvement.

cynthia curran
8 years ago

The answer is the Jammer. The first generation of kids who wore jammers is now growing up and getting fast. In the past, speedos were worn by age groupers and once you got to a certain age you quit swimming cuz boys are self conscious in speedos. Along comes the practice jammer in the 2000s and boom boys stayed with the sport. Thats my hypothesis at least.

Jammers have nothing to do with it, there were more male to female swimmers in the 1970’s, because their were a lot more college programs for males. Probably, having kids do underwaters helped younger males become faster but with males aged helps more than with females.

CoachGB
Reply to  cynthia curran
8 years ago

There has always been more girls in swimming since ancient times only at the college level until late 70’s at that level did that change. The ratio of boys to girls has only gotten slightly closer in more recent times.

eagleswim
8 years ago

ok so i agree that sergio is great, but this ignores the fact that a lot of his swimmers come into his program after already proving themselves. On the other hand, NCAP has proved itself to be the premier age group club in the country during this meet. Cassidy bayer, andrew seliskar, janet hu, and katie ledecky come to mind immediately, not to mention swimmers like matt mclean who come from the program. i may be overlooking some other teams, but this seems absolutely ridiculous to me, and very impressive

ArtVanDeLegh10
Reply to  eagleswim
8 years ago

NCAP is a great club team, but don’t they have a bunch of teams all across the DC area? I don’t have the numbers, but I’d be willing to bet that their overall numbers are astronomically higher than Bolles. Bolles is just 1 team in one location, so there is a big difference between the two.

eagleswim
Reply to  ArtVanDeLegh10
8 years ago

oh for sure, and im not really trying to compare the two, i think they have five sites in the dc area with senior caliber training groups. But the coaches all work together, and from a developmental standpoint, they obviously have got something figured out. so thats one thing, and the other is that those swimmers have all been developed from a young age on that team, can bolles say the say thing?

they really are two completely different programs with different strengths, and both deserve recognition, but all im saying is that NCAP, in my mind, have proved themselves to be the best age group developmental team in the country right now

pvk
Reply to  eagleswim
8 years ago

They have about 10 sites located across the DC metro region, and each one has a senior level training group. Each site operates as a separate club of sorts, and they all have a different head coach. Top level sites include the Tysons location, home to Andrew Seliskar, Megan Byrnes, and Janet Hu (head coach John Flanagan), the Alexandria site, home to Cassidy Bayer (head coach Jeff King), and the GP site, home to Katie Ledecky, Andrew Gemmell, Carsten Vissering (Bruce Gemmell).

eagleswim
Reply to  pvk
8 years ago

ok i know they have a lot of sites, but which ones are the senior group ones? im aware of tysons, american, prep, burke, and alexandria

Larry Fireman
Reply to  eagleswim
8 years ago

Sergio himself came from NCAP (Curl-Burke, at the time).

Swimmergirly
Reply to  eagleswim
8 years ago

Bolles has less than 300 kids with one long course pool, one short course pool in one location.

eagleswim
8 years ago

another thought: isnt this trend exactly what we expected when a few years ago we talked about what effect michael phelps would have on swimming? in 2004 18 year olds today were nine years old. does that sound like it would be around the time where they might be deciding which sport they would like to spend more time working on? to me it does. So why are we surprised? we all expected that an athlete like phelps would draw greater numbers and better athletes into the sport, and this is just an example of that

Matt Salzberg
Reply to  eagleswim
8 years ago

More importantly, those same lets say 15-18 year olds were 10-13 when Phelps was in Beijing. We talk a lot about the Phelps effect, and while we can’t say that it’s what is causing the sport to boom now, we can say that those swimmers most vulnerable to drop out in favor of other sports (that 10-13/14 age group) now had a flag bearer and something to be proud of in the national media. Going to school as a 13 year old when Phelps was at Beijing, I’m sure, was actually a pretty cool thing (not Lax cool, but bro, chill..). Point being, Phelps kept swimmers in the sport, and that effect is why we are seeing a shockingly high… Read more »

Eagleswim
Reply to  Matt Salzberg
8 years ago

I completely agree… For years everyone was talking about the fact that we would see a boom of age groupers coming up thanks to phelps making swimming cool, and now that it’s happening we’re wondering what could have possibly caused this phenomenon haha

duh
Reply to  Matt Salzberg
8 years ago

Ding ding ding!

mcgillrocks
Reply to  eagleswim
8 years ago

This is not the greatest teenage crop ever. The 2000 mens Olympic team was the greatest teenage group of male swimmers ever. Even as early as the 2001 WC, they won 3 individual gold medals (200 fly, 200 back, 200 breast) and 5 total. By 2006 they held a total of 8 individual world records

Currently they still hold 5 world records. Some of their names (especially a certain one) are legendary
Erik Vendt was 19 in Sydney and won 2 Olympic silver medals and was the first American under 15 minutes in the 1500
Ian Crocker was just under 18 and still holds the textile WR in the 100 fly
Brendan Hansen was 19 and held… Read more »

Steve Nolan
Reply to  mcgillrocks
8 years ago

Hot damn, that is some hot teenage action right thurr.

eagleswim
Reply to  mcgillrocks
8 years ago

great perspective, how easy it is to get swept up in the heat of the moment… we may have been spoiled in the past eight or so years by amazing veterans, so now when we see good high schoolers we think its a new phenomenon

Nada
8 years ago

Even Beth Botsford and Amanda Beard (13-15 years old at 96 Olympics) won gold and silver respectively.

CoachGB
Reply to  Nada
8 years ago

The oldest girl in 60 was 18 with two who turned 13 at trials prior. Most of the swimmers in the 60’s and 70″s were teenagers. Four 16-17 yr old men out of 16 on team.

Nope
8 years ago

Sergio is an outstanding coach. The best coach in the USA? Not sure you can go there. Best age group / high school coach ever, probably not. They had two great seasons and guys are swimming well in 100s at a young age. Perhaps they don’t have the necessary base to keep going?

Never raised anyone up to make an international team. Not yet anyways. I think he will. But not yet.

fan
8 years ago

In contrast to the growing number of age-group boys mentioned in this article, I would love to see a story about the growing number of teenage girls who are/were homeschooled so they can spend more time training, traveling, etc. (e.g., Kathleen Baker, Becca Mann, Gillian Ryan, Kylie Stewart, and Liz Pelton pre-Cal that I’ve read/heard about). The size of their arm muscles is astounding. I’ve heard the argument from both sides that if you get too big too quickly, it may shorten one’s swim career. It seems the girls want to make their success happen as soon as possible, and that nothing is going to slow them down in going after what they want. Has anybody else noticed this? Would… Read more »

Cade Auerbach
Reply to  fan
8 years ago

I train at the same club as Kylie and I can assure you she is not HomeSchooled

bobo gigi
8 years ago

The Michael Phelps generation is coming.

About Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis is a swim coach, writer and swimming enthusiast. Chris does private consulting and coaching with teams and individuals. You can find him at www.facebook.com/cdswimcoach. Chris is a 2009 Graduate from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first professional athletic coach …

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