Freshman Rebecca Waterson lives at school and the pool. You will find her catching a nap in the car on the way to practice, staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool for hours every day, being yelled at to go to bed because she has to be up in four hours for morning practice or grabbing a snack in the kitchen. Waterson writes the biweekly blog “Chlorine Chronicles” on her life as a competitive swimmer training with the racing team DART at Sacramento.
The sport of swimming is a never-ending progression of times and standards until you become a world record holder or the greatest of all time, Michael Phelps. Before a swimmer becomes a world record holder, there are many rungs on the ladder of meets to compete in first. So let’s start at the beginning!
The worldwide sport of competitive swimming is overseen by Fédération Internationale De Natation (FINA). Located in Switzerland, the group creates the rules for all sanctioned swim, dive and water polo competitions around the world. USA Swimming is the enforcer of FINA’s rules and guidelines and is also the governing body for all U.S. competitions.
When I was eight, I decided I wanted to try swim racing. I had always loved swimming and had been in the water and taking swim lessons since I was 13 weeks old. The closest swim team to my home in Incline Village, Nevada, was the Truckee Tahoe Swim Team (TTST) in Truckee.
My mom emailed the team and requested a tryout. I was already ski racing and dancing ballet, but after remembering the swim lessons of my early childhood, I decided to pick swimming back up.
On a snowy Friday in December, 2010, during the holiday break in school, my mom and dad picked me up from ski team practice and brought me to the Truckee community pool. No one knew what to expect. I was the only one who showed up for tryouts that day. We met head coach Debbie Meyer, and she had me hop in the water.
A few laps later, Debbie gave me a “silver group” label (the training group I’d be a part of). I was on the team and starting in January. My parents filled out some forms and wrote a check. I was now on a swim team and paid not only my training dues but also my membership to USA Swimming. No one knew on that December evening that our lives would soon become engulfed by the world of swimming.
I didn’t practice too often back then. I didn’t know my allegiance would change from loving ski racing to loving swimming. That would take a few more years. I wouldn’t go to practice for a few weeks at a time since it was ski race training three days a week all winter.
But as the snow melted and ski season wound down in mid-April 2011, I started going to swim practice more often. There was a meet announcement for an upcoming meet in Carson City, Nevada. My mom signed me up and even laughed that she was throwing me to the wolves because it was a long course (50-meter) meet, and I was little and had trained only in a short course (25-yard) pool.
The meet was on Memorial Day weekend. I was entered with NT (no time) entries, meaning I’d never swam the event and had no time, in 50 butterfly, 50 backstroke, 50 breaststroke, 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle. I still remember my 50 fly. I went a 1:05.04 (about the same time I can currently swim 100 meters), and my goggles fell off. I came out of the pool crying and swore off swimming butterfly forever! Despite that, I achieved “A” times in three events and Junior Olympic qualifying times within Sierra Nevada Swimming.
Sierra Nevada Swimming is one of 59 local swimming committees (LSCs) that divide up the United States for USA Swimming. Those 59 LSC’s are then rolled up into four geographical zones.
Each LSC creates its own rules for holding meets. Generally they follow a matrix of times put out by USA Swimming every three years called National Age Group (NAG) times. It starts with the slowest time achievement step for an age group and sex and provides times up to the highest.
The ratings are BB, A, AA, AAA, AAAA. To attend the Junior Olympics held by a LSC twice a year (one for short-course, one for long-course) you usually need a BB or A time. In this zone, you then race for times of the next highest meet, which is Far Westerns in this case. Far Western times vary year to year between AA to AAA time standards. Far Westerns are held in the Bay Area by the Pacific LSC.
Faster than that are zones qualifying times. Zones meets are held once a year in the summer. These meets are All-Star Meets, where your LSC picks swimmers to compete against other LSC’s in their region.
Here in Sacramento, we are also part of the Sierra Nevada LSC and attend the Western Zones meets. I went every year that I applied between ages 9-12 and got to travel to Grand Junction, Seattle, Roseville, and my favorite place, Kihei, to compete for the LSC.
Each of these meets is considered a championship meet and lasts five days. Instead of just swimming your events once each day, you swim your events in the morning and hope you are fast enough to come back that evening for finals and a second swim.
After each swim at meet, you look at your times, chase another rung on the ladder and try to qualify for faster meets in more events.
Each time you change age groups, from 8 and under, 9-10, 11-12, and 13-14, you also have to make faster times to compete in championship meets. In very general terms that is what they call age-group swimming.
Once you hit high school, and for some exceptionally fast middle schoolers, you start attending Senior Meets. At these meets there are no awards or breakdowns of age groups. There is usually a time standard to attend different levels of senior meets, and a 13-year-old can compete head to head for overall placing in a meet with all ages, including college-aged swimmers.
Each meet is different, and the rules for who can compete age- and time-wise are always spelled out.
Once again, in senior swimming, you are still chasing the next time standard to qualify for increasingly more difficult meets. Championship meets in senior swimming in order of difficulty include Sectionals, Futures, Junior Nationals, Grand Prix, Nationals, Olympic Trials and the Olympics.
Once you start high school you also incorporate high-school swimming into the mix of senior meets. Swimming for a school like Country Day makes high school meets even more interesting.
Most high schools compete against other high schools in their league and then move onto league championships, then regional championships and then state championships.
Because Country Day does not have the pool or the swimmers to field a league team, our USA Swimming swimmers have made arrangements with Rio Americano High School so that we can compete. Rio lets our swimmers jump in the usually empty exhibition lane at their home meets so we can get times to hopefully qualify for Sections and then States.
In reality, there is no end to the swim ladder. Even a swimmer like Michael Phelps just keeps pushing himself to greater and greater records and times. There is always another qualifying time to chase. Ask any swimmer what they are working for, and it will usually involve a cut for the next higher meet.
—By Rebecca Waterson