Should Swimming Have a Longer Offseason?
Taking time off is a foreign concept for swimmers. The sport is known to have no real offseason, except for a two-week break after the typical early-August championship meet.
With the coronavirus pandemic causing a months-long worldwide lockdown, swimmers got the opportunity to have an extended period to regroup and reset. And once swimming made a return, athletes defied expectations and threw down eye-popping times.
Swimmers set nine world records during the International Swimming League’s (ISL) second season, seven more than the previous year. More recently, the European Swimming Championships featured 13 championship records, including two world records. The swims are a sign that we should expect electrifying performances at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
College swimmers also performed superbly after the layoff. Ten men went sub-19 in the 50-yard freestyle, something only ever done before in the 2017-2018 season. The season also produced the most sub-45 100 butterfly swims in a college season (28).
On the women’s side, world champion Maggie MacNeil became the first woman under 49 seconds in the 100 fly. Additionally, swimmers had massive breakout years, such as Northwestern senior Maddie Smith. The Illinois native went best times for the first time in almost four years to make her first-ever NCAA meet.
Age-groupers showed swimming’s future is bright despite the past year’s challenges. Claire Curzan picked up where she left off before the lockdown. The Olympic hopeful has rewritten the National Age Group (NAG) record books with a combined eight 15-16 top-times in both short and long course.
The pandemic didn’t stifle rising star Thomas Heilman’s growth either. The 13-year old has broken three NAGs in 2021 despite being on the younger end of the 13-14 age group.
Internationally, 16-year old David Popovici highlighted a 100 free European Championships field with an average age of 20. The Romanian national record holder swam a 48.08 to place sixth at the meet. To put that in perspective, the American NAG in men’s 15-16 is 49.28 from Caeleb Dressel back in 2013.
Given the impressive showings post-pandemic, is this a sign swimming should lengthen its offseason?
Let’s examine the pros and cons of an extended offseason and what a shorter season could look like for swimmers at each level.
1. A Genuine Opportunity For a Physical and Mental Regroup/Reset
One of the main reasons people leave swimming is due to burnout. Early mornings and late nights year-round can get physically and mentally exhausting. Receiving more time off may help ease the fatigue swimmers feel later on in the sport. Swimming fans worldwide want to see increased participation numbers, and a more structured offseason could be the key.
2. Increased Swimmer Longevity
While more common in recent times, seeing a swimmer compete past age 30 is still a rarity. Swimming year-round without sufficient recovery time takes a toll on the body, putting athletes at risk for severe injuries as they get older. Developing a proper offseason would give swimmers time to recover from minor injuries they develop throughout the season rather than having to swim through them and causing further damage. As a result, it would allow swimmers to have the capacity to compete at a high level for a longer time.
1. People Could Lose Interest In the Sport
It is difficult to restart anything in life after taking a break. One of the reasons swimming doesn’t encourage a lengthy offseason is due to the fact that people may not want to come back after a multiple-month layoff. Coaches and swimming enthusiasts may fear an extended offseason could cause a decrease in participation.
A New-Look Swim Season
I believe track and field and swimming are similar sports in multiple ways. Track has developed an effective season structure, including a sizable offseason. It kicks off in January, with the indoor season taking place from January to March. After completing indoors, the sport transitions to the outdoor season from April to early September. Offseason lasts for about two months, and athletes return to training in early November. I think swimming at all levels could benefit from modeling its season similarly.
Short Course Season: Late November-March
In track and field, the indoor season starts in January and ends in March. Indoor track and field is similar to short course swimming as they are both non-Olympic formats in length and in some of the disciplines they offer. A four-month season gives enough time for background training, meets, and championship preparation. It also leaves enough time for age-group swimmers to refuel to put themselves in the best position to try to qualify for high-level international competitions in the summer.
Long Course Season: Mid-April-August
The long-course season would be almost the same as it currently is. It includes a short recovery period from the short-course season and gives enough time to hit peak performance at July or August championship meets. Summer is the season for championships for Olympic sports, so it makes sense for the twilight of swim season to stay where it is.
Offseason: Post-August Championship Meet to Early November
Depending on when their championship meet falls, swimmers could be looking at up to a three-month break every year. Coincidentally, that’s a similar amount of time most athletes in the sport spent out the water before pools started opening up after the COVID-19 initial lockdown. Given the times swum since, three months off doesn’t sound like a horrible idea anymore. Athletes could spend the time vacationing, trying out new sports, doing more dryland, mentally and physically resetting, or a combination of all. For their hard work, perseverance, and discipline, swimmers deserve more than a two-week layoff. A sizable offseason could be beneficial for athletes’ physical and mental health and longevity in the years following.
A majority of U.S. states already have high school swim seasons in the winter months. Creating a uniform season makes sure it won’t clash with the age-group long course season or the proposed offseason. Having all high school swim seasons end no later than mid-February gives at least a month between state and club championship meets. Doing so prevents swimmers from competing in championship meets on back-to-back weekends or having to make the tough decision on whether to compete in or taper for one or the other. A high-school season is typically three months, no matter the time of year. The proposal does not change the season’s length but instead makes it linear throughout the United States. I know weather is a concern, but with all states possessing an indoor pool or the ability to host a temporary pool, that should not be an issue.
Offseason: Varies Based On Swimming Goals
If an athlete does not participate in club swimming, they always have had an offseason spanning several months, and this model would not change that. For club swimmers, they would follow the age-group/club swimming proposed offseason.
Season: Late October-Late March
My proposed season is not much different than the typical NCAA college season. The only difference is starting meets in late October rather than as early as late September. When teams start racing in September, swimmers have to start practice at the beginning of the month, at the latest. That only gives swimmers who compete in long course two or so weeks off at most. Commencing a month later would push the training start date back around a month, giving athletes around a month and a half away from the sport. Being a college student is already tough. Adding 20 hours worth of training a week to the sport makes that experience even more hectic. We want student-athletes to succeed in the pool and at school, and allowing them reasonable time periods to recharge sets them up for that.
Off-season: Varies based on swimming goals
Many college swimmers do not participate in long course swimming. The proposed model gives these athletes an extra month to focus on school and prepare for life post-graduation. For those who choose to compete in the summer, their offseason would follow club, save a few weeks, as the proposed college season starts a little earlier than club.
Short course season (Not Including the ISL): January-March
Rather than being at the back end of the Olympics or World Championships, short course meter (SCM) swimming could start the year. The FINA World Cup stops could take place from January to early March. Bi-annually, the season would culminate with the World Short Course Championships. Track and Field adopts a similar format with the Indoor World Tour and World Indoor Championships. Having an earlier short course season would be beneficial because it prevents conflict between the World Cup and ISL. That way, swimmers could take advantage of revenue-generating opportunities. The only drawback is that the World Short Course Championships would conflict with the NCAA postseason. I do not envision it being an issue as the regular dates fall right after most teams’ midseason meets, meaning most college swimmers don’t attend anyway.
Long Course Season: April-August
Instead of relatively empty TYR Pro Series meets in the early months, it and all high-level long course meets could start up in April. Having them more frequently and closer to National Championships would drive the participating numbers in a positive direction. Overall, given the period in relation to international competitions, long course meets tend to pick up during this time of year anyway. Taking long course meets that occur during most professional swimmers’ background training and putting them during competition season would give athletes more meet opportunities when they need it most.
ISL Season: April-September
Although the ISL is short course, I decided to exclude it from the season. I think it would be much more beneficial for swimmers if it adopted a circuit format. For example, track and field’s main professional league, the Diamond League, has different meets worldwide from April to July. After international competition finishes sometime in August, it resumes as it has two finals meets. I believe the ISL could work similarly. The regular season could consist of multiple meets from April to early July. Like the Diamond League, every set of matches would take place in a different country. The regular season would conclude in early July, and the semifinals and finals would take place in September, a few weeks after the international competition that year. I could see the move being beneficial, especially in Olympic years. Swimming is the most popular sport at the Olympics, but beyond that, people forget about it for the next four years. The problem is there is not much happening in the swimming world immediately after the Olympics. As a result, people lose interest. The ISL could feed off the momentum brought from the games, allowing the league to gain massive viewership and popularity, keeping the sport in the spotlight for a little longer.
Offseason: September to Early November
Making the offseason from September to November gives pro swimmers at least a month off and up to a three-month break after a grueling season. They would now have the chance for adequate mental and physical recovery. We have seen multiple swimmers open up about mental health issues, and maybe remodeling the offseason could help combat that. Additionally, many pro swimmers have families. With the current season, vacations and family time are rare or non-existent. Extending the offseason makes balancing life in and out of the pool easier. Another positive is longevity. We may see swimmers elect to continue the sport longer, knowing they have more than two weeks away at the end of every season. Training year in, year out for an extended period of time gets physically and mentally taxing, which is why swimmers competing in their 30s is rare. With up to three months a year worth of down time, we could potentially see more Nicholas Santos’ and Alia Atkinson’s in the sport in the future.
Overall, the swimming community seems to have mixed views on whether swimming’s offseason needs revamping. However, given the post-lockdown swimming performances, it shows that maybe a few months out of the water every year may be beneficial for swimmers at all levels. It will be interesting to see if swimming decides to make any structural changes in the coming years.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.