This past Wednesday practice our main set was an 8 x 50 or 100 choice best average on 3:00; meaning we were to go as fast as we could while maintaining the same pace for all eight reps. Of course because we’re masters we don’t put in the necessary kilometrage to properly gauge such efforts: for fifties I aim for a 95% effort the first couple and then go as fast as I can for the rest; and with hundreds I try to stick to a 90% effort throughout. Unfortunately since I was the only one in my lane who wanted to go hundreds we went fifties, and not being a sprinter at the best of times I really struggled throughout with some depressingly slow times. Shocked I was not. Since the start of January I’ve moved to my next stage of training intended to better develop my aerobic conditioning by adding a kilometer to each of my workouts while continuing efforts to revamp my stroke techniques. I’ve also radically increased the number and distance of my kick sets, and have made enough progress out of the pool in my physiotherapy to necessitate wholesale changes in the way I use my body. I’m tired and sore. If Phelps, Coughlin, Lochte et al can be compared to mountaineers perched high on the mountainside then I find myself so deep down in a valley well I have to bend my neck back merely to sight the sky. While some day in the future I will see my times improve to respectability right now any progress I’m likely to see will be minor and hard fought for.
What is a good time, a quality time, for a master swimmer? What sort of times can we reasonably shoot for? We can’t compare ourselves to the elite, but assessing performance upon existing masters world records has enormous pitfalls. Many are notorious for being ‘soft’ – slow times known not to be representative of the relevant age group’s true capabilities; and this number increases dramatically as we travel up and down the age groups either towards old age or youth. But then again, are the supposedly ‘hard’ records really that good either? To decide what constitutes great in masters swimming I ended up using as my benchmark something I saw being cited as proof of Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen’s bona fides: that she’d raced fast enough in masters to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. To me this appears like a good basis to judge performance. The qualification times are derived directly from the real world of elite swimming yet are still within reach of our very best masters swimmers.
Two further questions and some particular aspects of this analysis need to be answered and clarified before I present my findings. The first question is at what age exactly does an athlete become a master? FINA recognizes eligibility at the age of twenty five while most countries set as their minimum age at nineteen (clearly for participative inclusiveness only). Also the reality only times from sanctioned masters event are eligible for masters consideration needs to be included in the equation. Times from the open circuit, even in FINA sanctioned events, are not counted and consequently there are several well known international swimming stars who are excluded by this technicality. To minimize this effect I’ve arbitrarily determined ‘true’ masters competition only commences at thirty for women and thirty five for men. While I’ve tried to include all those eligible swimmers both past and present who were still swimming in open competitions I’m certainly going to miss some of them. I apologize in advance. Let me know of any possible candidates and I’ll check to see if they should be added to the list. The second question is what Olympic Trials should be used as the benchmark. Not what country, that’s by default the U.S. (hats off to USA Swimming and its historical data base), but what year. The last Trials where short course times were accepted for qualifying purposes and thus listed were the 2000 Trials; and since most masters events are short course I’m only using this year’s Trials as a comparative for those who qualified swimming long course. As my primary benchmark I’ve settled on using the 1992 Trials. Interestingly I didn’t find the time differences between 1992 and 2008 particularly significant, something I’ll have to study and write about later on. Accordingly my list shows qualifying times by event, age group, the qualifying swimmer, his or her country, whether the qualification was long or short course, open or masters sanctioned event, and (if long course) whether the time also qualifies for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. The times are arranged fastest to slowest. So here you are – the world’s Greatest Masters Swimmers so far.
Three observations. One, the list is completely dominated by ex-Olympians. Two, you don’t see many qualifying here in the distance events do you? And three, just look at all the women!
Of course noting the domination of ex-Olympians in a list of the great masters swimmers is not particularly enlightening so I’ll not discuss that any further. The lack of anything over 200 meters is to be expected too. Aerobic metabolism, which starts to become a significant factor after some twenty seconds of effort, passes the initial boost received from ATP-PCr metabolism within a few more seconds and eventually overhauls glycolysis, which takes over from ATP-PCr as the body’s primary source of energy, at around the two minute mark. The ascendancy of aerobic metabolism, not coincidentally, marks the end of the sprint events. Aerobic capabilities decline with age – precipitously if the individual stops the activity for any length of time. Building it back up even partially takes years of effort typically not available to adults with other, more pressing concerns. So the domination of the sprint 50 free here is expected. I’m most impressed by the swimmers who qualified in the 200, the longest sprint distance. To be successful in the 200 after retiring from open competition means continuing to soldier on in the pool putting in lots of kilometers.
The real stunner is the ratio of great female master swimmers to the male equivalent, women qualifying 37 events to 6, an amazing 6:1. Even if you exclude Dara Torres who has qualified in an unbelievable eight events in three different age groups, the women still lap the men with ease. I speculate the difference comes from a vastly greater participation rate by elite women, which continuing with my conjecture, may rest upon how differently the two sexes view the notion of swimming as a team sport. In this hypothesis the two sexes approach the team concept in such different ways it affects the way they view swimming after retirement and, ultimately, the number who reenter the sport. I propose males only give lip service to the idea of belonging to a team, at least in so far as swimming is concerned, reserving this to games such as football, volleyball, and car racing amongst other endeavors. No man would seriously deny belonging to a team is essential for achieving elite status – but he'll rationalize in the end only he's going to be standing on the starting block. Being driven as much by the competition as by success they simply move on and don’t return once they become uncompetitive. On the other hand I suspect women truly buy into the concept of team swimming: finding deep satisfaction in the personal relationships developed in pursuit of shared dreams. So while like men the elite women don’t return to masters for the competition they can and do return for the sociability they associate with the sport. More elite women equals more quality performances - and the women win going away. Sound reasonable?
Update: Floswimming has an interesting video with Jimmy Tierney, coach of Northwestern's womens swimming, who contrasts the differences between coaching men and women and the often divergent methods used to motivate them.