The Difference Between Olympic Swimming and College Swimming

swimmer at 2011 ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National
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What is the biggest difference between college swimming (and high school swimming) in the USA and Olympic swimming? While many of the swimmers in college in the USA will be swimming for a spot on the USA Olympic Swimming Team, college (and high school) swimming is just not the same as Olympic swimming. Sure, the strokes are the same (freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, and the individual medley), and as already mentioned, many of the swimmers may be the same, too (side note: some foreign swimmers and dual-nationality are on US University and college teams, and some of those swimmers might swim on their home country's Olympic team).

So... what really makes US college and university swimming (and high school swimming) different from Olympic swimming? The strokes are the same. The swimmers are the same. The events are more or less the same. What is the difference?

The Length of the Swimming Pool

Swimming in the USA's college and university system is almost entirely done in SCY (short-course yards). The normal college swimming competitive pool is 25 yards long. Olympic swimming is done in LCM - long-course meters. Olympic pools are 50 meters long. There are also SCM pools (short-course meters) that are 25 meters long, but in the USA these are not very common. They are very common in the rest of the swimming world, and there are world championships held in both 50-meter LCM pools and in 25 meter SCM pools. In 2000 and 2004, NCAA DI Championships were held in an SCM pool.

Why does that matter? Sure, one is longer than the other, but what is the big deal? Running tracks are 440 yards or 400 meters most of the time. Is there that big a difference between yards and meters in swimming pools?

Yes, there is. For starters, the length difference between 25 yards and 25 meters is about 10%. That means that a 50-meter swimming pool is about 55 yards long - a swimming pool that is 50 meters long, converted to yards, would be 54.68 yards long.

The Number of Turns

Then there are the turns. In a yard pool, every swim done in a high school or college meet has at least one turn. In a 25-yard short course yard pool, a 50 is a start, a turn, and a finish, but in a 50-meter long course pool, a 50 is a start and a finish. No turn. Swimmers have a higher speed, compared to swimming in the middle of the pool, when they are at the start and as they come off the walls after a turn. The shorter pool (25 yards or 25 meters) includes more turns that will help a swimmer to reach a higher average speed. The result is that a shorter pool, with more turns for the same race distance, equals a higher average speed, which equals a faster swim.

One example is the men's 50 freestyle as of March 2012. In a long course pool (LCM), there are no turns. In a short course meters pool (SCM), there's one turn. The same is true in the much shorter short course yards (SCY) swimming pool:

  • LCM: Cesar Cielo BRA 20.91 = 2.39 m/sec (2009 — suit worn is now banned)
  • LCM: Fred Bousquet FRA 21.36 = 2.34 m/sec (2010 — textile suit)
  • SCM: Fred Bousquet Auburn 21.10 = 0.26 seconds faster than LCM = 2.36 m/sec (2004 — textile suit)
  • SCY: Cesar Cielo Auburn 18.47 = 2.89 seconds faster than LCM = 3.00 m/sec (2008 — suit worn is now banned)

Race results from a short course meter pool (SCM) are faster than from a long course meter pool (LCM). The turn makes a difference whether the pool is meters or yards. A short course pool performance will be faster than a long course pool performance at any championship level meet, and at almost all other meets, too.