Everybody Wins In Collegiate Swimming! (Or Maybe Everybody Loses?)

Swimming teams from USC and UC Santa Barbara prepare for action in a recent Pac-10 swim meetThis is a first. I went to a sporting event and I don’t know who won.

Given that I’m a semi-trained, quasi-professional sports-watcher, this is a bit embarrassing to admit. But I have a plausible defense – nobody at the USC vs. UC Santa Barbara dual swim meet I attended recently ever made mention of a winning team. I wasn’t even positive they were keeping score.

Let me tell you about my day, and let you decide if I am guilty of Negligent Spectating…

First of all, I know I’ve previously gone on record proclaiming that ALL aquatic events should be conducted outside – but I was young and foolish then. It was the sunshine and 75 degrees talking. It was now January however, and I was wearing layers to an outdoor aquatic event. Be careful what you ask for.

In addition to being chilly, I found the environs at USC’s McDonald’s Swim Stadium to be pretty modest for a school as wealthy (in heritage and endowment) as USC. In fact, I had to double-check with a couple of fellow spectators that yes, this had been the home of the swimming and diving competitions at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was like running across a famous movie star who had “let themself go”. Or watching any recent Mike Tyson fight. Kind of depressing.

Amends were in the process of being made, as something was clearly being renovated – but it was hard to figure out what was and what wasn’t under construction.

And despite the status of the renovation, there’s no excuse for falling behind in banner posting. Proudly displayed on a brick façade overlooking the pool are banners celebrating four NCAA Water Polo National Championships – the most recent of which is listed as having taken place in 2008. But conspicuously absent was any evidence of the national title claimed in May by the Women of Troy. I know they won – I’ve got the pictures to prove it!

Water polo championship banners hang at USC McDonald's Swim Stadium

Say, Ummm…Anybody Forget Something?

Women Of Troy Water Polo Team Moments After Clinching 2010 National Championship

With my wonderful experience attending the U.S. National Swimming Championships as background, I was surprised to find that in college swimming an Olympic size pool (50 meters in length) is not used. Instead, the competition is squeezed into a pool just 25 yards in length, despite the fact that the McDonald’s facility clearly had the aquatic real estate to support Olympic length. An adjacent lap pool was actually larger than the one used to conduct the meet.

I bring this up because I can’t quite figure out why college swimming programs wouldn’t want to use the same lengths and dimensions as those in use during international competitions. I would assume that elite collegian swimmers aspire to be Olympians, so why make them swim vastly different types of races?

Let’s take the 100 Freestyle event, for example. In international competition, that “100” is measured in meters, and it consists of a single down-and-back swim. In collegiate competition, the “100” is in yards (91.44 meters), and it requires the athlete to swim down-and-back twice.

“So what’s the big deal?” you say. Funny you should ask.

Having now seen both events, I submit to you that the 100 Freestyle in college is an almost completely different animal than the international 100 Freestyle. Perfecting the former is all about mastering the turn and push off as much as it is about mastering the swim stroke, since there are three turns required. When the initial dive into the pool is factored in, I calculated that roughly a third of the collegiate 100 Free race is spent either in the air or gliding underwater after a push off.

When you consider that these athletes, placed in an international competition, would then have to swim a distance that’s about 110% of what they’ve trained themselves for in college, and that they actually have to swim more and glide less…well doesn’t that seem like they’d have to train for two separate events to excel worldwide in the 100 Free?

And don’t get me started on how this phenomenon changes the nature of races involving a more difficult, slower stroke such as the butterfly or breast stroke. Or how a sprint relay in a 25-yard pool could just as easily be called Leaping & Gliding instead of Swimming.

I’ll let you be the judge…

I know what you’re thinking. “This guy needs a hobby to distract him from his hobby.”

Point well taken. But I offer this in defense:  I was trapped in a sporting event devoid of context! What else was there to do with my time? Allow me to explain.

USC and UCSB women swimmers get set to compete in a Pac-10 dual swim meetI wasn’t surprised to find that the USC vs. UC Santa Barbara meet was of the “Friends & Family” variety – meaning that 90% of the spectators fell into one of those two categories in relation to the athletes. But this one took it to a new level:  “Clairvoyant Friends & Family”.

There was no semblance of a meet program available. There was a P.A. announcer, but he limited his use of the microphone to pretty much listing the names of the swimmers in each lane prior to each race, and then reporting the results when the event was done. Occasionally during some of the longer races, he would provide a tidbit or two of background information on some of the more decorated swimmers, but for the most part it was “just the facts, Ma’am”.

And then there was the scoreboard. Or lack thereof.

A scoreboard did exist, and it was in use for the first few events – but it quickly malfunctioned and was turned off. About two hours later, its functionality was gradually restored, at first yielding just split and finish times by lane, and finally in the last three or four heats, displaying swimmer names and schools as well.

This information blackout unwittingly served as a great experiment in testing the effect that context has upon an event. Even in the absence of a scoreboard, I could obviously see who was swimming the fastest at any given time in any given race. But I knew nothing about them, nor did I know any of the ultimate goals that all concerned were seeking to achieve.

In contrast, at the U.S. Nationals, the World record, U.S. record and Olympic record times were displayed on the scoreboard throughout each event. And to back that up, the P.A. announcer provided running commentary on the backgrounds and achievements of many of the swimmers – without delving deeply into swimming slang and acronyms.

Each race carried with it a story, and that made all the difference. It gave everyone in attendance something to care about and root for. In the absence of that…well, you’re more or less watching an endless stream of arms and legs exiting and entering the water.

Sure enough, when the scoreboard at the McDonald’s Swim Stadium was fully functional, the viewing experience changed immediately. As soon as all that info was there for the viewing, I found myself consulting it for a number of different purposes. No longer was I just watching limbs splashing.

USC swimmer Richard Charlesworth wins 500 Free event in recent dual meet with UCSB

Charlesworth “Touches In First” In 500 Free

In the Men’s 500 Free, for example, the announcer pointed out that USC’s Richard Charlesworth was an Olympian who had competed for Great Britain in the 2008 Olympics. Given that knowledge, I found myself tracking his split times and involving myself in his race. If I hadn’t had that back story and the in-race data it would’ve barely registered with me how impressive his win (by 3 ½ seconds) had been.

Then, just when things were getting interesting, it was over. It was “Thanks for coming and drive home safely” time and people began to dutifully pack up their belongings and head out.

But…um…aren’t you forgetting something? Like who won the meet?

There had been no “scoring” provided throughout the day, on the scoreboard or otherwise. And it occurred to me that the words “win” or “winner” had been used rarely – if at all. According to the announcer, nobody ever “won” a race. Instead someone was reported as “touching in first”.

As I drove home, I truly began to wonder if USC and UC Santa Barbara had been competing against each other, or whether they were merely conducting a joint exercise in competing against the clock. I honestly couldn’t tell.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I leave it up to you to decide whether I’ve dropped the reporting ball, and if so, what type of penalty should be assessed. Please be kind.

(P.S. I did look the event up on the internet the next day and found that both the USC men’s and women’s teams had prevailed…but according to IGTS Tour bylaws, finding out who wins in this manner is just plain cheating)  

Next Up:  Roller Derby! Yes, I said Roller Derby!! 

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