Does U.S. National Age Group Record Onslaught Signal a Rebirth of Age Group Swimming?

By Jeff Commings

PHONEIX, Arizona, October 4. AN extraordinarily high number of national high school records fell at the hands of talented young swimmers in the United States in the past 12 months, prompting praise and speculation.

From September 2012 to August 2013, 112 individual and 64 relay national age group records were broken in short course yards and long course meters events, about 60 more than were broken in the previous 12 months and the largest number for a season in history. No age group was spared in this record onslaught, as athletes as young as 10-year-old Winn Aung and as old as 18-year-old Missy Franklin created a big change in the record book.

“The national age group records caught us all by surprise,” said David Marsh, whose swimmers at SwimMAC Carolina reset several relay records. “Everybody’s trying to figure out why (it is happening). Even in discussing it with the best minds in the sport, I don’t think there’s a consensus.”

Two common factors were mentioned by coaches in order to nail down the reason why age group swimming had such a good year. The post-Olympic motivational boost has driven many of them — particularly boys — to swim faster than they might have thought was possible at their age. Of the 176 national age group records broken, 108 were set on the boys’ side.

“Certainly Michael (Phelps) has made a huge impact, but we’ve had a lot of successful athletes over the past few years,” said Pat Hogan, USA Swimming’s director of club development. “Thanks to people like Michael, Ryan (Lochte), even Aaron Peirsol from a few years ago, it’s cooler to be a male swimmer than it ever has been.”

In this technological age, it’s much easier for developmental coaches to access the tools they need to guide their swimmers to success in the pool. With the help of the latest tablets, coaches can show athletes race footage, do an Internet search for tips from renowned coaches and even film their athletes for instantaneous feedback.

“There’s much greater training sophistication, and I think there’s a lot of great coaching going on that’s adding to the whole mix of this,” Hogan said.

It could also be argued that more swimmers in the pool increases the odds of getting champion swimmers. USA Swimming’s membership increase of 19 percent means more talent is available for coaches to mold. That membership increase can be seen at the junior national level, where Hogan said 3,400 athletes qualified for junior nationals.

But some aren’t ready to point to rising talent as the sole reason for the record bump. John Leonard, the executive director of the American Swim Coaches Association, believes parents are not willing to let nature take its course, providing their young children with store-bought stimulants to give them an edge and achieve record-setting times.

“I would be concerned about the ‘magic pill’ syndrome being promoted by over-enthused parents who are used to themselves taking a pill to make life better,” Leonard wrote in an email. “The overwhelming evidence of empty five-hour energy (and similar) bottles after age-group meets shows us that the concept of ‘take something to make you faster’ is very much alive and active in age group swimming.”

While it cannot be verified if any of the national age group records were set with the help of a quick caffeine boost, Leonard warns that something as seemingly innocuous as chugging an energy drink before a race can lead to graduating to more advanced performance-enhancing substances when the swimmers are older.

Leonard also hopes that the younger swimmers setting records are able to parlay that success into their late teens and early 20s, when most athletes are typically making Olympic and world championship teams.

“We’re much better at making them ‘fast early,’ but it’s not translating to ‘faster when mature,'” Leonard said.

Marsh and his staff are working to avoid that issue at SwimMAC, where they don’t have a specific goal of setting national records.

“The goal is to have our swimmers develop through the years,” he said. “With more programs structuring it that way, you’ll see more teenagers getting faster. It’s so unlimited for coaches and swimmers to understand what they need to do to get to the next level.”

Will this record barrage continue in the 2013-2014 season? Caeleb Dressel is already leading the charge, with two short course yards records last weekend in the 50 free and 100 fly. But has the record setting reached a saturation point, or is this just the start of the rebirth of age group swimming?