Swimming with the Big Fish: competition basics
Meet structure | Before the meet | Meet gear | At the meet
Types of meets
Pool meets are divided into three basic seasons: short course yards (SCY-spring), long course meters (LCM-summer), and short course meters (SCM-fall).
SCY distances are measured in yards and each length is 25 yards long, so a 100-yard swim would be down-back-down-back (25 x 4=100).
LCM distances are measured in meters and each length is 50 meters long. A 100-meter swim would be down-back.
SCM distances are also measured in meters, but each length is only 25 meters long. A 100-meter swim would be down-back-down-back.
Events in pool meets are divided by stroke and distance. Typically, individual events are freestyle (50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 1650 yards), backstroke (50, 100, 200 yards), breaststroke (50, 100, 200 yards), butterfly (50, 100, 200 yards), and IM (100, 200, 400 yards).
In meter meets, the 500 yards is replaced by 400 meters, the 1000 yards by 800 meters, and 1650 yards by 1500 meters except in the IM. Not all events may be offered at each meet.
When you swim in a meet, you will be in a heat with other people who swim about the same time as you do. For final results, however, results for swimmers are divided into age groups of five years (19-24, 25-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 95-99, 100+).
Relay age groups
In SCY pool meets, relays are determined by the age of the youngest member of the team. Groups are 19-24, 25-34, 35-44, and so on up by 10-year margins. The United States is the only place where there are yards meets, probably because most of the pools are measured in yards rather than meters like the rest of the world.
In meters meets, relays are determined by adding the four ages together. Groups are 76-99, 100-119, 120-159, 160-199, 200-239, and so on up by 40-year margins up to 320+. It's a much fairer way to do it, and could be done for yards meets, but the old fogeys in charge of competition rules cling to their unfair way for yards just because "that's the way it's always been done."
Before the meet
Deadlines for sending entries to meets are on the individual entry forms. They will also be posted on the "Dates" page of the team web page. Note that most deadlines are the dates that the forms need to be received, not when they are postmarked.
Determining your age for a meet
In a SCY meet, your age group is determined by your age on the last day of the meet. At a Friday-Saturday-Sunday meet, if your birthday is on a Saturday night, your age group for the whole meet is determined by how old you are on Sunday, not on Friday or Saturday.
In a meters meet, your age is determined by your age on December 31 of that calendar year, no matter when during the year the meet is held or when your birthdate is.
Swimmers must enter a seed (estimated) time on entry forms for each event they want to swim. At the meet, swimmers swim against others with about the same times instead of just those in their age groups. That way all of the races are competitive and more fun. Men and women are usually in separate heats, but not always. Ask your coach to estimate a seed time for your first meet if you're not sure.
Understanding your registration card
When you receive your registration card in the mail, be sure that all of the information is correct. If it's not, contact the club registrar. Your card is the official information for you and it needs to be accurate. Some basics:
Filling out the forms
You will always be asked to attach a copy of your registration card with an entry form. This is because the USMS insurance is voided for all swimmers in a meet if just one unregistered swimmer participates. It's also a good idea to take your actual card with you to a meet, although you can keep it in a glove compartment of your car or wallet or purse. Then if there's ever a question, you can pull out and show your original.
You must sign and date the waiver at the bottom of an entry form, and you need to include payment when you mail the form. Some of the charges on entry forms are optional, such as getting results mailed to you, socials, and gear. Others are not. You will always have to pay a "meet surcharge" to cover the cost of electronic timing and computers, officials, and facility charges to the host club. There is usually a per-event charge for individual events. Don't send money for relay entry fees. We'll chip in and take care of those at the meet.
Be sure to write down seed (estimated) times for all of the individual events you want to enter. And be sure that your entry arrives by the deadline. If you decide not to go to a meet after you've mailed your entry, most clubs will refund your payment if you notify them in advance. That information is listed on the information sheet for the meet. If you're at the meet and decide to scratch (not to swim) an event, you don't get a refund for that event.
SWIM SUIT & TOWEL: Well, Duh!
BAG: Some sort of sports or gear bag is really helpful for carrying lots of small items, and with lots of competitors at a meet, it's easy to mistake similar pieces of equipment that are lying loose on the bleachers. It's also a safer place for keys and wallets.
GOGGLES: Most swimmers have two pairs of goggles. There are "practice" goggles which fit a little loose and are comfortable to wear at practices and for warm-ups at meets. And there are "meet" goggles which are so tight that your eyes almost bug out; they are only worn for very short periods of time during actual races; they are that tight so there are no leaks on your dives. If you're a backstroker, get darker goggles so you're not blinded by the sun.
WATER: Adrenaline, intense physical activity during races, and waiting in the sun/bleachers for events can contribute to dehydration. Bring water or a non-caffeine sports drink (caffeine contributes to dehydration) and drink plenty of liquids during the day.
SUN PROTECTION: Sunscreen, sun glasses, and a hat are good ideas. You'll be at the pool and in the sun from early morning to at least mid-afternoon. There's a lot of bright glare, you'll be getting direct sun when you're swimming and warming up/down, and you'll also get a lot of sun walking around and even resting. Not all pools have shaded bleachers.
WRITING UTENSILS: You'll get a heat sheet at each meet. A pen and a highlighter are convenient to keep track of your heats and lane assignments as well as recording your times.
SOFT SEAT: Bleachers are hard and they don't have backs. You'll be sitting more than you're swimming, so bring a stadium cushion for the bleachers or a comfortable folding chair.
SHAMPOO: A chlorine-rinsing shampoo really helps for the shower in the locker room after your last event. Ultra-Swim is good, and there are occasionally free samples at meets.
OTHER: small water-tight bag for keys and USMS card; larger water-tight bag for suit & towel after the meet; money for refreshments and discounted swim gear from vendors.
At the meet
All meets will give you a heat sheet when you check in. It is a listing of the order of events, which heats you will be in, and which lanes you will be in for those events. Then it's up to you to keep track of the meet progress and get to the starting blocks at the right time. No one will hold up the meet to wait for you to get there.
Getting ready on race day
Before the day's events begin, warm up in the competition pool, preferably in one the lanes you will be swimming in later. People circle swim in the warm-up lanes, so you're not allowed to dive in (it's dangerous) and it can get you disqualified, so don't do it!
Especially practice your turns because the bottoms and sides of pools differ and what you're used to at your local practice pool may look a lot different from the competition pool. Get your timing down in the new pool and find some landmarks so you can accurately judge distances.
Sometime towards the end of the morning warm-up period, there will be an announcement about "sprint lanes." Those lanes become one-way so people can practice dives off the blocks. Try it to get used to the blocks (and to make sure your race goggles fit snugly).
All pools will have warm-up and warm-down lanes during the meet. Sometimes it's in the same pool and sometimes it's a different pool. Take advantage of these. You want your heart and muscles already at an up-tempo and ready to go at the start of each race rather than shocking them into sudden action. And after your heat, warm down by swimming a few easy laps. It's just as important as warming up and will keep lactic acid from building and your muscles from tightening up.
Starts of races are different too. Ask you coach for help. Basically, you report to your lane before your heat. The referee sounds the horn/beeper once long, which means stand behind your block. Then there are three short blasts which mean get up on the block and get ready. The starter says, "Take your mark," the horn beeps once, and you're off.
We'll get together beforehand to put together relays at meets, so be sure to sign up if you'd like to swim in one. They are fun to swim -- sort of a bonding thing, if you already haven't.
Going to meets can be an expensive proposition with travel/gas, motel for overnight stay, and meals, not to mention the meet entry fees. For that reason, a lot of Masters swimmers prefer to share rides and motel rooms.
A team dinner on Saturday nights at two-day meets is lot of fun. Dress is casual. Arrangements are usually made that Saturday afternoon at the pool, so if you're interested, be sure to talk to team members at the pool to get a time and place to meet.
Some but not all meets have a small concession stand with fruit, water, soft drinks, bagels, junk food, and if it's a larger meet, sandwiches; bring money. But don't eat anything big just before a race! It's a surer bet to bring your own water and light snacks.