Ten Things to Know About Training in America (Before You Fly There)

By Jane

You cannot mess around in the heats of big meets any more. In most countries, the top five or six swimmers don’t need to try particularly hard in the morning preliminaries in order to advance to the night’s finals. If a national championship includes semi-finals, this is even more true. Scoring a lane somewhere in between lanes two and six is incredibly easy.

The same is not true in NCAA competition, especially if you’ve chosen a school in a competitive conference, such as the Pac 10 or S.E.C. Even the better swimmers have to race hard in the mornings in order to get through to the finals.

While I was always encouraged to give my all in the heats and semi-finals even when I was assured a place in the top eight, there is simply no room for mistakes in NCAA competition. Fart around in the heats, and you’ll be poolside for the finals.

The opposite of the above can be true for some dual meets. Quite often, you’ll need ever last shred of energy for dual meets and if you’ve spent it all in your first two races, your last three are going to suffer terribly. If you know you can win the two-hundred breaststroke and swim seven seconds slower than your best time, then swim seven seconds slower than your best time. It’s better than winning by the length of the pool and then being beating to a pulp in the four-hundred I.M. an hour later.

Of course, if your competition is tough, then you have to be tough as well. However, killing yourself unnecessarily is a sure-fire way to make sure your body is completely broken by the end of the season. You’ll need to race hard against your arch rival universities, but you don’t need to against a significantly weaker competitor. Conserve your energy when you can, because the NCAA dual meet schedule can and will kill you if you let it.

The audience that attends your dual meets isn’t that which turns up at the Wellington Champs. The stands aren’t filled with mothers and little sisters, touting ham sandwiches and flasks of cocoa. These are college kids, and if you’re racing a school that’s deemed a rival, be prepared for your audience to be a bit rowdy. People will turn up simply because you’re a swim team and they’ve heard that they can watch forty girls walk about in swim suits for two hours. About half of your dual meets will take place on a Friday at six p.m. Be prepared for your audience to be drunk.

I heard a great story once about a Princeton versus Cornell dual meet where the Cornell students thought it would be fun to create a virtual riot during the competition. People brought hard liquor into the stands and the referees had to delay the start of a few races due to the noise. I’ve heard of swimmers at rival schools having things thrown at them from the stadium.

Regarding rival colleges, your school will have at least one university that you are required to hate. If you go to California, your hatred should be directed at Stanford. In my case, the University of Washington was meant to incite a rage within. Now, (post graduation), I work two blocks from the UW and half of the staff at my workplace are UW graduates. It’s hard to vehemently hate someone and something that you see every day. Purple “W”s don’t even register on my radar any more. However, during my time at Washington State University, I was meant to loathe everyone and everything that UW ever produced. It’s ridiculous – all rival colleges obviously share the name nationality and usually are situated in the same state. Some are even located in the same town as each other. It makes no sense, but it’s part of the culture of NCAA sport.

NCAA sport is a business. You may not have to pay a dime to attend school, but a lot of money is going into you personally, and the sports department at your school owes you nothing. Most coaches will forgive a few bad races, and some will forgive an entire bad year. However, these aren’t your club coaches who nurtured you through age group competition. They can cut you loose, either by kicking you off the team or cutting your scholarship money, and there are literally thousands of swimmers who are chomping at the bit to take your place. When I began swimming at WSU, seven other Freshman began swimming there with me. By the time we graduated, there were only three of us left. Kudos to you, Andrea and Karen!

Relays have never been more important. You’ll recall the relays at local and even national meets; the only time anyone really cared about them was when a relay team could possibly qualify for an international meet. In the U.S., the points scored by winning a relay are usually double what an individual scores upon winning. Thus, relays are a goldmine of points and you’re generally expected to care more about your relays than you are about your individual races. Victory in the 2006’s women’s NCAA championships was decided in the last relay and while Georgia looked like they were going to take home the championship, the results of the race gave the win to Auburn. Let me reiterate: Relays have never been more important.

Football and basketball are the kings of the college. You know that the swimmers train harder, compete harder, get up earlier and get better grades in school than the members of both these teams. Don’t bitch about it. You won’t change the fact that these guys consider themselves to be the pinnacles of sporting excellence.

There will be a school newspaper. Accept that there is only one breed of journalist stupider than the guy who wrote about swimming for your local paper at home, and that’s the guy who writes about it for the student newspaper at school. He’ll report that your name is Lindsay Copland and that you swim the two-hundred butterfly (I promise that none of you want to see that). He’ll get the time wrong. The picture of the person swimming next to your (misspelled) name will not be you. Just be pleased that they found room amongst the basketball results for a piece about the NCAA swim champs.

Check out the college before you fly to the United States to live there. I didn’t actually do this, and although I still would have gone to WSU if I’d checked it out beforehand, I wouldn’t recommend my method of, “Oh, hey, wanna go live in America?!” to anyone else. I could have been making a huge mistake and I wouldn’t have known it. Being so far away from home, you’re really, really screwed if you arrive on campus and discover that you don’t like where you’ve ended up. You can’t just jump in your car and drive home to have a heart-to-heart with your parents about it. While you’re free to leave at any time, and visiting a college on a “recruiting trip” before you sign doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like it, a once-over is highly recommended.

Get the most out of your experience. I feel so sorry for the people who said to me, “I’d be way too scared to go live in another country.” It was the best decision I ever made and while it wasn’t easy, it was more than worthwhile. You just have to keep your wits about you, and swimming in the United State collegiate system will be a fantastic experience.