By Chris Balbo, Swimming World College Intern.
In late March, the Eastern Zone will be running the long-standing Zone Age Group Championship meet with an entirely new format. In 2016 a task force of coaches from the Eastern Zone was formed to evaluate the current Short Course Age Group Championships held in Webster, N.Y. The task force made up of coaches from across Eastern Zone Local Swimming Committees (LSC’s) proposed that the meet become similar to that of Sectionals and Senior Zones.
In years past, the meet has been run as an 18-and-under meet with teams from Maine to Virginia. Each LSC would bring their top two or three swimmers in each event for every age group. The meet was once named the Eastern Zone All-Star meet for only bringing the top individuals in each event. Many LSCs had rigorous processes to be selected for the team. LSCs like New Jersey would travel, eat meals, and room with other New Jersey swimmers from other club teams. This approach was unique because it allowed swimmers from various teams to compete with one another, forging friendships across teams, promoting team unity, as well as experiencing the feedback from other local coaches. This meet was a stepping stone to the upper echelon of swimming because it gave age groupers a taste of the team travel experience. It was notoriously one of the most spirited meets for its theme nights, exciting apparel, and exhilarating atmosphere. Regardless of swimming fast, the environment made swimming exponentially more fun.
However, with the new changes the Eastern Zone Age Group Championship or “Zones” will no longer be competed as separate LSCs. Set qualifying times for short course are being used to determine eligibility. Each club team brings their swimmers who qualify. However, the meet is capped by age band: with a maximum of 275 10-and-under athletes and 600 11-and-over athletes.
Compared to the prior meet format, which was based on the top two/three fastest times, swimmers with slower seeds can shut out faster swimmers. While this happens in traditional meets, most championship meets at the age-group level do not set athlete limits. The eastern zone is an extremely deep and densely populated zone. Excluding athletes that may qualify at LSC level championship meets defeats the purpose of having established qualifying times for the meet.
Should coaches taper their age groupers for midseason meets to qualify early to ensure a spot at Zones? By having entries be completed by club teams makes it possible for one club team or groups of club teams to dominate the championship rendering it unfair for smaller clubs who may be ousted. Not to mention eliminating the team unity experience of Zones. Not all swimmers have teammates capable of competing at the Zone level, should these swimmers have to compete without teammates? The comaraderie and friendships formed at zones live long past these meets.
It is important to note that no other zone – Central, Southern or Western – has a meet equivalent to the Eastern Zone SC Age Group Championships but do have LC Age Group Championships in August. The LC Age Group Championship has traditionally followed a cut time format, but LSCs have competed as opposed to club teams.
In summation, it will be interesting to see how the changes to the meet format will affect the atmosphere and dynamic of Zones. Although the new meet format may be more convenient for coaches and families alike, it negates the unique bonding experience between competitors swimming for the same team. Regardless of format, the meet is sure to showcase fast swimming from across the Eastern Zone. More information on the Eastern Zone Age Group Championship can be found here.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.