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How significant is long course competition to athlete success?

7/1/2013

Swimmers racing in a long course pool. MediumBy Dan McCarthy//High Performance Consultant

Many programs across the United States have regularly placed athletes on the National Team and the National Junior Team despite having little or no access to long course training facilities for most of or all of the year. Unlimited access to long course training does not seem to be a significant hurdle to national-level success. However, is the number of events an athlete races long course important for success? In other words, do athletes who race long course the most have an advantage over those who race less long course?

We randomly investigated 12 events from the 2012 US Olympic Trials. For the women, we looked at the Final heat of the 50 Free, 100 Free, 100 Back, 100 Breast, 100 Fly and 400 IM. For the men, we looked at the Final heat of the 50 Free, 400 Free 100 Back, 100 Breast, 100 Fly and 200 Fly. The number of times each athlete swam the event long course between January 1, 2010 and June 24, 2012 was counted and the average number of races was determined for each event.

There were many variables between the events making it hard to compare the results to each other. For example, on average the men in the 100 back final swam the event almost 38 times each, but the women in the 400 IM only swam their race about 17 times each. Instead, we looked at what athletes swam their event the most and the least and if they finished in the top four or the bottom four of the final race. Additionally, we also looked at those who earned an Olympic spot on the team and how often they were an athlete that swam the event the most or the least. 

  • In 10 of the 12 events, the athlete who swam the most races finished in the top four of finals
  • In 8 of the 12 events, the athlete who swam the fewest races finished in the bottom four of finals
  • In 10 of the 12 events, the athlete who swam the most races earned a spot on the US Olympic Team
  • In 3 of the 12 events, the athlete that swam the fewest races earned a spot on the US Olympic Team

It is interesting to note the three athletes who swam the fewest races during the investigated time period and made the team were very experienced National Team athletes: Allison Schmitt in the 100 Free, Anthony Ervin in the 50 Free and Brendan Hansen in the 100 Breast. There does not appear to be any advantage to having swam fewer races and having no experience.

It will be interesting to see if the trend of swimming a specific race more often continues to suggest a more successful outcome at the Olympic Trials. Some of the additional tangents we will look at: 

  • How did finalists compare to semi-finalists, or those who finished ninth through sixteenth?
  • How did collegiate athletes fare compared to the professional and high school athletes?
  • How explainable are the instances when an athlete with the fewest swims makes the US Olympic Team? Do those athletes share anything in common?