Google Swimming Record Holder Craig Robinson: ‘Anyone Can Be That Person’

Google Swimming Record Holder Craig Robinson

By Kat Hall, Swimming World Contributor

Just one month after setting a record of 11 days and over 960 km of continuous relay swimming in Google’s outdoor pool, Craig Robinson, the lead participant, reflected on the feat.

Attempting to break the Guinness relay record with a team of eight swimmers was a passion project that started years ago, when Craig, a software engineer at Google, was looking for something fun to do with the Google Master’s Swim team—and yes, he started by Googling it.

Robinson approached the planning process with aplomb, digging into the intricacies like an engineering problem with technical requirements. It took more than four years of false starts before he was able to recruit volunteers, find committed swimmers, understand the Guinness verification process, coordinate emergency protocols, obtain approval from stakeholders, and fine tune a training schedule along with Laura Schuster, the Google Master’s Swimming Coach. As it got closer to the start date in December 2019, it became clear that the strict Guinness guidelines were yet another logistical puzzle he had to solve. So Craig devised multiple independent systems for data collection, verification, and cross referencing by volunteer observers.

Not only did Craig make sure each swimmer wore a smart watch to record the number of strokes per length, but he also augmented Google’s pool with digital timing pads so that the completion of each length was also recorded. Guinness requires two observers to document at all times, but Craig went a step further, wanting to remove as much bias as possible, so he ensured the observers were separated from one another, and used different methods for timing (manual clicker and computer recording). He even installed a camera that used computer vision to track each frame. In many ways, it was an adroit programmer’s dream: how to build a complex system with multiple redundant mechanisms that could maximize data integrity.

How Googley.

When it came to training, Robinson again approached swimming like software development. Using the tenets of pass/fail testing, he established intricate “Go/No Go” criteria for the swimming team, including strict cutoff times for 100-yard pacing, multiple swims at night, and long stretches over an hour in the water. Like a tech project, he “de-risked” the physical constraints by setting up a repetitive regimen of multiple interval training sets a few times per day, testing endurance limits by trial-and-error (“2 hours felt awful”) and understanding how much time was needed for recovery.

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Craig Robinson and crew; Photo Courtesy: Elissa McQuaid

At the end, the team settled upon a schedule where swimmers were paired up and decided between the two how to break up their 7-hour segment in the pool. What worked best was alternating swimming sessions that got progressively shorter, starting at a little over one hour, and going down to 30 minutes. Craig even optimized the system of the pool itself. He arranged to have the temperature set higher so it was more comfortable for the long duration they would spend in the water, reduced the jets so the water was still, and adjusted the cleaning service schedule so they would be able to use the same swim lane for the entire 11 days.

After setting up so many assiduous systems to prevent unexpected results, one question that remained on my mind was: were there any surprises?

“During one of my first days, I was swimming a leg in the middle of the night,” said Craig Robinson. “I was alone in the pool, with no one to talk to, no one around. I realized that it was really happening. All the work and stress of planning it all was over. All I had to do was swim. I started to do backstroke, staring up at the stars. There was this overwhelming sense of peace. A deeper sense of calm, and I settled into a rhythm. I felt real joy.”

Another surprise was a suggestion from a few kids of one of his coworkers. Craig had set up a livestream video which hundreds had tuned into every day. But the kids wondered why he didn’t set up a chat function to accompany the livestream. What Robinson couldn’t understand was why anyone would want to comment on an activity so boring to watch. However, never quite turning off his software engineering brain, he was agile, remaining open to iterating on the website he built. Robinson purchased some code which he found online for a chat box. In a few hours, he embedded it into the webpage, thinking his parents would be the only ones to leave a message. What he never imagined was that people from all over the world would watch him, from all time zones, and use the chat tool to provide real-time updates, create community, and cheer the team on.

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Photo Courtesy: Alex Goldhammer

One person commented: “Watching from the air over Ireland, be there to help volunteer in 2 days. Pace is amazing, keep it up!

Another swimmer’s family member wrote to let him know that his 100-year-old great grandmother had been watching his relay leg and knew immediately that he would make it. Perhaps the most enthralling was discovering the inspiration it would provide to the next generation of swimmers:

“Watching from North Carolina! Tonight at practice we showed your feed to our high school swim team that I coach. You guys are the epitome of mind over matter. Keep it up!!”

Strangers wrote in from Colorado, South Africa, Florida, and Indiana. “At one point, 1,000 people were watching,” said Craig Robinson. “I would leave the pool, go home, and could turn on the live cam, check on my mates, and drop a comment or two in the chat window. Some even said they were streaming it all day at work. It was just amazing, the interest and the excitement.”

By the end of the relay, as Craig butterflied the final lengths for the team, the biggest surprise was realizing this effort impacted so many people.

“Anyone can be that person,” Craig Robinson said. “A small part of me thought this would go viral in some way, but I never counted on it. I was shocked when I saw we had news coverage. It just snowballed.”

Few of us ever imagine that we will be the ones to inspire people in another part of the world to support our passion project, or demonstrate how anyone can work at breaking a record over 40 years old, or be the aspiration of a competitive high school team. But this achievement gives us renewed vigor to tackle any goal we want to realize in swimming.

“I couldn’t believe that I was this person influencing others. I created this thing that we will remember forever. And we’ll talk about it at dinner for the rest of our lives.”

Craig Robinson and his team raised over $30,000, with the help of more than 300 people who volunteered or donated. The proceeds were shared between two organizations, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a organization in San Diego that supports athletes with physical challenges, and the United States Master’s Swimming (USMS) Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, an organization that supports programs for adults learning to swim.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Gray

7 comments

  1. avatar
    Cappy Benton

    How googley indeed! What a great article. I loved the way Kat Hall really zeroed in on how the shared experience aspect of this world record captured the imaginations of so many people worldwide. Marshall McLuhan would be as pleased as punch.

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      Having heard Craig ‘s mom tell me about this venture I can only say that Craig is a chip off the old block. I do not know Craig, but I do know his parents. We are all so proud of you and your team.

    • avatar
      Kat

      Thank you Cappy!

  2. avatar
    Bridget

    What an achievement! I’m proud to know the young man who set the swim in motion.
    Well done the entire team !

  3. avatar
    Eileen and Dave

    Brilliant, Craig and team 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  4. avatar
    Ming

    Excellent article. We’re you in a 50 meter pool and average 100 time? This inspires me to put a women’s team together and recruit from my swim team, Irvine Nova masters in CA.
    Dr. Ming

    • avatar
      Kat

      Dr. Ming, thank you. I love your idea. Female athletes are underrepresented, particularly in swimming. We need thoughtful outreach when it comes to recruiting and building inclusive training environments. Thank you so much for your dedication and support.

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