Editorial: Distance Swimmers Deserve Better at U.S. Masters Nationals

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Editorial: Distance Swimmers Deserve Better at U.S. Masters Nationals

By Kelly Palace

As I write this, I’m in attendance at the 2022 U.S. Masters (USMS) Spring National Championships in San Antonio. This is the 30th anniversary of my first ever USMS Nationals. The meet opened on the first day with both the 1000 and the 1650 freestyles as the only two events. That’s right, both on the same day. Some swimmers, including myself, did both of these events – because when you are a distance swimmer, these are your two best events – not ideal for the premier meet of the season.

Having two distance events on the same day, and several other consistently repeated and negative practices for the treatment of distance swimmers, need to change. This commentary is only regarding the USMS Nationals and not local or zone meets.

In 1992, I swam in my first ever USMS National Championships and set the national record in the 1650 yard freestyle for women aged 30-34. I fell in love with USMS Nationals. Fast forward three decades and I have swum multiple USMS Nationals’ 1650s, 1500s, 1,000s and 800s, so I’m speaking from experience.

Masters swimming provides an incredible community, not just for our physical fitness, but arguably as much for our mental and emotional well-being. Swimming, coupled with my friends in the Masters Swimming community, have helped me through breast cancer, divorce, caring for and losing my mother to Alzheimer’s, and so much more.

Now I’m asking for support from the Masters community, its swimmers and its leadership in helping distance swimmers. It is my hope that this opinion editorial will start some important conversation for change.

Distance swimmers work too hard to have their events marginalized and deserve to be treated the same as other swimmers. After seeing no change for 30 years (and recently surviving my fifth year clear of breast cancer and turning 60), I can no longer be silent about the second class treatment that distance swimmers receive when attending the U.S. Masters National Championships.

Here’s what needs to change at the national championship meets:

  • Distance swimmers should be allowed to swim both of the distance events at Nationals. Why should distance swimmers be asked to choose to swim only one of their two best events and miss out on the best pool, best competition, ideal time of year, taper meet, etc? We allow sprinters to swim all of their events. We don’t tell sprinters or stroke specialists that they can only swim one or two of their best events.
  • Distance events should not be swum on the same day, nor even on back to back days, but ideally on the first day and the last day of the meet. Why should distance swimmers be asked to swim their two best events on the same day, or even back-to-back days? They should be entitled to the same benefits of swimming their key races with adequate rest between the events, as any other swimmer in USMS.
  • Distance events should be seeded according to gender and age-groups. Why should distance swimmers be asked to miss out on the best racing opportunity of the season at Nationals (again, best pool, best competition, ideal time of year, taper meet) by being seeded mixed gender outside of their age-group. In shorter events we don’t put the fastest 60 year olds with the 30 year olds of the same speed. No, we allow swimmers of the same age group to compete against each other. Again, and of course, with the exception of distance swimmers… unfair treatment and double standard.
I can report several close races for the gold (at this nationals and others) where the swimmers vying for the title were not seeded together and therefore did not race each other.
Masters - Distance

Photo Courtesy:

Swimming mixed-gender heats is especially problematic for women who are seeded in a predominantly male heat, or next to, or between two men. In speaking with women, this has happened (including myself, see accompanying photo). It is definitely not an ideal scenario for top performances, with extra turbulence being inevitable, unlike same gender seeding.

Why the injustice? Leaders in USMS tell me these reasons: 

  • Meet organizers concerned about timelines
  • Meet organizers concerned with the workload on volunteers
  • Meet organizers concerned it will cost more  

Here are some solutions:

  • Limit the number of swimmers allowed to enter the distance events at Nationals. Limiting participation in distance events occurs at the local and regional levels. Make the qualifying times more difficult with “must have a real time” and/or create an aggressive first come and first served deadline for meet entry in the distance events. That’s nothing new to distance swimmers. We all know there are a certain number of slots whenever we enter USMS meets. Allow a certain number of slots per age group based on history of entries. Make the deadline known, and if one is really passionate about entering, they will enter. Make a waitlist.
  • Extend the meet for a day on either side of competition.
  • Hold the shorter of the distance events (800/1000) on Day One of the meet and the longer events (1500/1650) on the last day of the meet. This way, a mile on Day One doesn’t trash your body for the rest of the meet.
  • Seed the distance events like other Nationals heats, where the top swimmers from each age group and gender are together to race.
  • Regarding solving extra cost issues: this is a leadership and budgeting issue. Why should USMS funds not support distance swimmers? We pay our dues like everyone else.

Treating swimmers with equality should not be based on administrative challenges. Good leadership within USMS can solve these problems and they must be solved. On the local and regional levels, mixed gender and age-groups are perfectly understandable and acceptable. But for National Championship meets (only one per year, per course) USMS must treat the distance swimmers equitably, justly and fairly.

Swimmingly,

Kelly Parker Palace

Host of the Champion’s Mojo Podcast for Masters Swimmers and Author, Take Your Mark, LEAD!

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Mike Zabel
21 days ago

concur!!! well said!!!

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Robin Klestinec
21 days ago

Here! Here! Love this idea!

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Zena Courtney
21 days ago

Great points all Kelly! Totally agree and always wondered what the distance swimmers thought about how these events were unfairly placed.

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Lisa Ceddia
21 days ago

I complete agree with these points. As for solutions- There already is a mandatory qualifying time for the 1650/1500. I have had many slower people swim the 1000/800 at the national meet and I don’t think they should limit the number of entrants then you are trading one standard not applied to everyone else for another. The 2022 long course schedule is better they could easily use this model to spread the events out.

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Kelly Parker Palace
21 days ago
Reply to  Lisa Ceddia

Hi Lisa, this summer’s USMS LC Nationals has the 1500 & 800 on different days as the first two days of the meet, BUT, unless something changes (before meet information is printed) it was indicated to me from USMS leadership that distance swimmers will not be allowed to swim both. Truly mind boggling. So a distance person swims swims the 1500 on day-one, on day-two they are not allowed to swim the 800. The only other events on that day are 100 back and 50 fly. So a wasted day in travel and hotel and we sit there swimming nothing. USMS always leaves the option to drop everyone’s 6th event. Let those that want to enter their two best events as 800 & 1500 get that option. If the timeline runs too long, DROP THE 6TH EVENT. Again, USMS is often allowing others their SIXTH event, but not distance swimmers even their top two!

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Kirk Nelson
21 days ago

The long course meet has additional challenges because only a single course is used. That really affects the timeline. One possibility would be to go double-ended (i.e. swimmers start from both ends of the pool), but the problems with that are obvious, too.

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Linda
19 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Nelson

We witnessed this in PanAms in Brazil. Sometimes, it wasn’t pretty.

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Laurie Hug
21 days ago

Thanks for speaking up for us, Kelly! If it is true that swimmers will need to choose between the 1500 and 800 this summer, then holding the events on separate days is worse than having both on the first day. Who wants to go a day early to swim one event then have the next day off? I guess a few swimmers will want to do the 1500 on day 1, and 100 back or 50 fly on day 2 but most of us will not; so I suspect the majority will choose the 800. I’ve often wondered how sprinters would feel if they put the 50 and 100 of each stroke on the same day or made them choose between one or the other.

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Linda
19 days ago

With one qualifying time, either 800 or 1500, swimmers should be able to swim both in my opinion.

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Ron Neugent
21 days ago

Thanks for having the courage to speak up.

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Robbert van Andel
21 days ago

I agree with muc of what you’re saying except limiting the number of swimmers. Making it more fair for distance swimmers should not come at the cost of inclusivity. I’m a distance swimmer and would love to be able to do both at nationals but would hate.to see empty lanes due to and odd number of entrants in an age group. Keep them combined by time but move the two events to different days.

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Kirk Nelson
21 days ago

I agree with most points, but I actually prefer the current seeding. The current seeding done strictly by seed time (theoretically) puts swimmers of similar speed together. Yes, the down side is you might not be swimming against your direct competition, but that doesn’t bother me so much. I also don’t really like the idea of limiting the number of entries. I think the current system, in this regard, does a good job minimizing the timeline and allows everyone to swim.

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Heidi Hester
21 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Nelson

I also agree with all points except changing how the distance events are seeded. I think it would drastically effect the timelines and as a person who is better at distance races, I would rather be next to people my own speed rather than getting lapped or lapping others multiple times. I don’t know how much participation you would get putting the mile first or last on the last day of the meet. From an officials standpoint, you only need 4 stroke and turn judges sitting at the edges of the pool making sure people touch the wall. There are ways to do it if USMS wants to seriously look at this dilemma.

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Leander
20 days ago
Reply to  Heidi Hester

In a pinch, you can run distance races with 3 officials (Deck Ref, Starter and 1 stroke and turn).

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Ana Fradkin
21 days ago

While I sympathize with your plight, and have lots of respect for your ability to swim distance events, I really don’t know that this is practical, and also not necessarily fair to all the other swimmers.
You are choosing to swim events that take up at least 200% more time in the pool than the next-longest event, still requiring the same level of staffing and reservation time for the pool. So you’re not actually being treated unfairly because you pay dues like everyone else; the other swimmers are actually subsidizing you. (And that’s compared to the 500 free, not exactly a sprint.)
If the meet organizers were to put one of the distance events on an extra day at the end, that would increase the cost of holding the meet. This cost would presumably be spread among everyone who enters.
If the meet organizers wanted to keep the cost the same, they would have to spread the other events onto days shared with the distance events. This would increase everyone’s stay by at least a day. Again, imposing the cost of a choice to swim a very long event on everyone else. And many people can’t do that very easily. These are masters competitions and most of us have work and family obligations that make it challenging to take almost a week off to travel to go to a swim meet. A lot of people who would like to go and easily make the qualifying times can’t go at all. (That would be me, this year, to care for my daughter.) It doesn’t make sense to make it more logistically challenging that it already is.

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Nicki Phillips
21 days ago

Thank you for saying something. I want to swim at nationals, but know that my two best events are on the same day and I will do well on the first one and not very well on the second one. It seems very unfair. Break up the events onto different days, I don’t even mind if they are consecutive days, but just different days. Put them in the morning and let others sleep in while we are swimming. Don’t make us swim at 6 PM at night.
Whatever happened to having an open water swim at nationals?
Thank you for saying something!

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Richard Wiese
21 days ago

I completely agree with you. Your thoughts and reasoning are well constructed and stated.

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Nicki Phillips
21 days ago

In addition to my comment, I do think they should still seed by time instead of age group to keep things moving. I also think the 1650 should be the first day. Maybe move the 400IM to the first day and move the 1000 to day two at the beginning of the day. Then add a couple of relays – 4 X100 relay and 4 X200 relay to the first day. Or move a couple of non-distance events to the first day – 50 back and 100 breast. That would make the other days shorter so you have time for the 1000 on day 2. Why not play with the schedule a little bit and let the distance people swim their two events on different days?

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Kirk Nelson
21 days ago
Reply to  Nicki Phillips

I’ll admit grousing from time to time about having to show up a day early if I want to swim distance, but I do understand it. Those events take forever. I’m not sure we’d want to add other individual events to the first day and thereby force lots more swimmers to show up a day earlier. The longer relays maybe.

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Suzanne Grebe
21 days ago

Great ideas and solutions provided. Totally agree on the inequality in TX of distance swimmers.

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Linda
19 days ago
Reply to  Suzanne Grebe

It wasn’t just Texas. It’s been that way for a long time.

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Benjamin Baum
21 days ago

I concur with Kelly’s well written, professional and thoughtful article. I was present at San Antonio as a competitor. It does seem unjust in the current strata.

Solution to Time & Cost argument? Easy.
Raise USMS dues $3 a year x 40/50,000 members = $120,000+!!! Then cost is no problem for existing Event costs of pool, lifeguards, etc.

Why should distance swimmers be under duress or forced to choose 1 race to exert 110% ?

Perhaps we should ask Katie Ledecky ?
More to the point— COMPETITION needs to fair, congruent to all competitors and entry requirements in writing. It should and easily can be.

USMS will attract more swimmers, retain more swimmers and in doing so; educate more people about safety, health, and enhance USA swimming.

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Kirk Nelson
21 days ago
Reply to  Benjamin Baum

Here’s the counter argument to that: what percentage of USMS members compete at Nationals? Now, what percent of that slice competes on distance day? Based on this the Nationals distance swimmers are truly a special interest group and it doesn’t make sense to make every USMS member pay extra so this small group doesn’t have to swim the 1000 and 1650 on the same day at short course Nationals.

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Karen Torres
21 days ago

How true. Clearly this was not a strategy designed by a distance swimmer when laying out the format of the meet.

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Eney Jones
21 days ago

I whole heartedly agree, thanks for writing this article.

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Eney Jones
21 days ago

I’m so anxious with both of them as the first event and both of them on the same day, I can’t complete either one. Because to do both or conquer one as your first event would require much too much training and confidence that eludes me at this time. Brava Kelly!

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Julie Van Cleave
21 days ago

Kelly, thank you very much for putting this out there. Overall it was an excellent meet and I would like to thank all those who worked so hard to make this event happen. I look forward and train for this event each year. I’ve attended all the USMS Spring Nationals consecutively since 2003, and this the first time I recall the mixed gender seeding for the distance events. In past Nationals, including ones with larger attendance, it has worked to have the men’s and women’s events run separately.

I have always appreciated having a “championship” heat for each age group, so we can race against our direct competition. This year I felt like my age group competitors were spread out over so many heats that it just didn’t feel like they were there. I do like that we can swim both the 1650 and the 1000, and I am sure we all have our preferences as to which of these should be first. But, I think the experiment this year with the mixed gender heats did three things for me: 1) it took the racing out of the age groups, as you can’t race someone you can’t see 2) it made for uneven racing experiences for women when larger men were on lanes on either side, and 3) it made the race feel more like one of our local meets where we always swim mixed gender for distance events. I don’t know how much time was ‘saved”, but it was at a cost. It would be great to go to Nationals and have it feel like Nationals for the D-Crew!

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Linda
19 days ago

Great points!

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Robyn Shiely
21 days ago

What if distance had their own swim meets at the local, regional, and national level? Events would be 1650,1000, 500, 400IM, or 400m IM 400m, 800m,1500m) Open water swimming has their own swim events and championships, in fact there seems to be plenty of opportunities for the open water community to compete but not so much for distance pool swimmers. I’m very hard pressed to find anything longer than 500 at most local meets in order to get an official time for anything longer than a 500. I some times have to use the Hour Swim to get distance times.

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Holly Green
21 days ago

Absolutely agree!!!!

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Patrick Brundage
21 days ago

Very well-written, well-reasoned. I think, at a minimum, they could easily put the 1000 on Day #1 and the 1650 on Day #4 by putting a few events before those each day. Doing so would also have the added benefit, for multi-stroke and IM swimmers, of potentially creating a better order of events for ALL swimmers by spreading the remaining events over 4 days instead of cramming them into three days.

Alas, I doubt this will happen. I learned awhile ago that if I want to train to swim fast in the 1500/1650 and the 800/1000 in the same season, I need to race the 1500/1650 earlier in the season (say January) at a regional meet and then then 800/1000 only at Nationals.

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Becky Cleavenger
20 days ago

Excellent points. I support these recommendations 100%.

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Brynnar
20 days ago

I want to sign the petition!

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Linda Simons
20 days ago

I agree! Maybe a modified seeding with the top 16 from each age group being seeded together. This would allow the competitive element and others could be grouped by time helping with the timeline.

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Dr. Norman G. Bartner
20 days ago

The responses ring hollow. I am a sprinter and prefer to swim one race per day. It seems very easily adjusted by needing to move one race only, and keeping age & males and females adjacent to each other. It would certainly be more fair.

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Jeff Jotz
20 days ago

I like the author’s argument but requiring swimmers to have swum a previous 800/1000 or 1500/1650 before entering Nationals may prove a challenge because there aren’t many options to swim those events at local Masters meets. I run the only LCM Masters meet in my entire state. I am required to end my meet at a certain hour by the host pool, so I can only offer a 400M IM or an 800M freestyle (and I limit the number of heats).

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Ana Fradkin
20 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Jotz

I thought that was already a requirement.

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CJ Lewis
19 days ago

100% agree and would love to see this change.

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Ellis Merschoff
19 days ago

I could not disagree more. Doing both 1000 and 1650 on the same day lets me do the races and not have to hang around for days between races. Also, limiting to only the fastest people is way too elitist. We slow people like to swim too. Please don’t make these suggested changes.

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spam hammer
19 days ago

Same whiny complaint year after year. Distance swimmers are treated better than all other swimmers and want even more preferential treatment. (1) you pay far less per event entered than anyone else. 1000 and 1650 amortize well into the cents-per-yard while using maximum time, compared to a 50 free. Even in the sprints, the time difference from 1st to 10th is only a few seconds, wile in the 1000 it could be 5 minutes (that is four heats of 50s). (2) there is plenty of deck space for the long events! And plenty of time to make your heat! (3) The starter and deck officials will wait around for distance swimmers. If sprinters are 5 seconds late for the whistle, too bad, wave good bye to your heat.

Limiting entries for distance events is just false elitism personified. This same feeling reeks through the OW swimming crowd, too. Lots of whining from such a small crowd. Get over yourself and try to enjoy the fact that you even have a national championship to enter.

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George Sushkoff
14 days ago

Amen! At last year’s short course nationals, the 1650 and 1000 were held on the same day. I personally had never seen a meet set up this way. I swam both, because I was grateful for the opportunity to swim. However, it’s far from ideal. In most meets, the “mile” is the last day of the meet. For LC nationals, they are forcing distance swimmers to sit out one of their best events. So much for inclusion. If the timeline is a concern, make the Q time faster, or cap the number of entries so that only a given number of heats will be swum – first come, first served. There are some smart people at USMS. They can figure out a way to allow everyone to swim ALL of their best events within the 6 event limit.

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