How Much Do Swimmers Improve In College?

01-23-15 MWSD vs. Cincinnati Clark Garner Team Photo by Kelly Price
Photo Courtesy: Kelly Price

By Giulia Filocca, Swimming World Magazine Intern.

College Swimming

The NCAA is often hailed as the stepping-stone to sporting success. In fact, one statistic finds that 40 percent of swimming medalists at the 2004 Athens Olympics competed at NCAA institutions. Does this mean that we can attribute Team USA’s stellar Olympic showing to collegiate athletics? How much do high school swimmers truly improve in the span of four years at a collegiate program? Does cumulative performance improvements differ across institutions, gender and events? Read on to find out!


Photo Courtesy: Aaron M. Sprecher, Kenyon Athletics


To gauge performance, a random selection of ten seniors (five per gender) from the top 20 NCAA Division I programs were chosen, and performance data in their top event from high school through senior year of college was analyzed.

The total sample size consists of 79 women and 88 men, with specific programs containing less than ten graduating seniors. The term “senior” applies to all individuals graduating in 2017-18, including transfers and gap year athletes. International students are omitted from all high school calculations, as no SCY times can be obtained prior to attending college. All individual top times and team rankings are extracted from the college swimming website.

Pros of this Method

There are pros and cons to this method. By tracking performance in a top event, anomalous time drops from experimenting with new distances/strokes is avoided. Data is not restricted to a single championship meet, allowing top times to be achieved at any point in the college season. Finally, selection bias was minimized by picking a random pool of seniors from respective roster lists. 

Cons of this Method

One flaw is that programs with a high proportion of international students suffer due to a lack of data, because such individuals’ performances cannot be analyzed from high school on. This is problematic for Tennessee men and Virginia men in particular, which boast 50 percent of foreign students in their graduating class.

In addition, results might be biased by the choice of top event, with distance swimmers typically dropping more time relative to sprinters. A further complication arises from the inclusion of transfer students, who may not have achieved their best times at their graduating institution. Finally, the data is influenced by the underlying sample size – results of teams with less than three graduates, such as USC Women and Virginia Men, will hinge upon the improvement of a select few.


Total Time Improvement

On average, seniors from the top 20 men’s and women’s NCAA Division I programs shaved 3.25 percent off their high school best times. Strikingly, all but one man broke their high school best in college, while six percent of women did not improve at all. Within this pool of non-improvers, 80 percent of females had the 200 SCY backstroke as their top event. 

Photo Courtesy: Giulia Filocca

Breakdown by Class

Although men dropped substantially more time (3.6 percent) than women (2.9 percent), the timing of the personal best is fairly uniform across the board. In particular, 40.1 percent of graduates achieved their best times in their senior year of college. 

Photo Courtesy: Giulia Filocca

On a class-by-class basis, men seem to improve steadily through college, whereas women tend to perform best during sophomore and junior year. Relative to their high school bests, both parties were on average 1.13 percent faster freshman year, 2.65 percent sophomore year, 3.15 percent junior year, and 2.65 percent senior year. 

Photo Courtesy: Giulia Filocca

Breakdown by Event

The majority of distance swimmers (over 1,000 yards) clocked best times in junior year (33.3 percent), while 40.5 percent of mid-distance (200-500 yards) and 44.4 percent of sprinters (50-100 yards) swam fastest in their final year of college. 

Photo Courtesy: Giulia Filocca

Division I Men

Virginia boasts the largest time drop among the graduating men’s senior class (8.3 percent). This result is biased due to its small graduating class, composed of only Sarik Tara and Peter Georgiadis. Closely following is Indiana with 5.7 percent and Missouri with 4.5 percent. As for the former, Blake Pieroni and Levi Brock contributed most to Indiana’s prowess − the pair dropped 6.5 percent and 8.5 percent in the 200 SCY freestyle and 100 SCY breaststroke respectively at 2018 NCAA DI Championships. These three colleges have made tremendous strides on the national rankings front – most notably Virginia moving up from thirty-sixth position in 2014-15 to fourteenth in 2017-18.

At the bottom end are Tennessee and Stanford, with positive time drops below two percent. The former’s underwhelming performance is attributed to its large international class, many of which are omitted from cumulative time calculations. Stanford recruited a strong class in 2013-14, featuring Liam Egan and Samuel Perry, but neither improved by a significant margin through college. Notwithstanding this result, both teams have retained their top-15 national positions since 2014-15.

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Photo Courtesy: Giulia Filocca

Division I Women

As for women, Auburn stands as the top performing university (5.1 percent) ahead of Texas A&M (4.7 percent) and Missouri (4.5 percent). All three schools are part of the SEC conference, which features stellar swimmers such as Bethany Galat, Hannah Stevens and Brooke Malone.

USC is the only school to produce an anomalous sub-one percent statistic (0.6 percent). This is due to its one-member graduating class, with Hannah Weiss only dropping from 51.9 to 51.6 in the 100 SCY backstroke. Overall, the top woman performer for the class of 2017-18 was Texas A&M’s Bethany Galat, shaving over ten seconds off her high school best to clock a 2:03.30 in the 200 SCY breast at the 2018 NCAA DI Championships.

Photo Courtesy: Giulia Filocca

Combined Results

Of the colleges and universities that appear in both samples, Virginia (5.95 percent) clings onto first position with the best performing senior class of 2017-18. Indiana follows with a close second (4.55 percent), while Missouri and Auburn tie for third (4.50 percent).

Looking ahead, Indiana could conceivably retain its top three position with stupefying time drops from junior Lilly King, recruited with a 59.67 and recently posting a 56.25 in the 100 SCY breaststroke. A similar argument holds for Auburn’s Zach Apple ‒ the 200 freestyler has already slashed 7.25 percent off his high school best time (1:38.31) to log a 1:31.18 at 2018 NCAA DI Championships. 

Key Takeaways

Though every swimmer does not always lie on the normal trend, this analysis generalizes common trends in top Division I swimmers. The definitive answer is that yes, swimmers do, on average, improve in college. While the magnitude of this effect differs across gender, disciplines and programs, there is little doubt that collegiate athletics positively impacts individual performance.

More importantly, however, is that the bulk of best times appear to be achieved during senior year. This should act as a source of intrinsic motivation for current underclassmen, who should not let minor setbacks deter them from progressing in the sport. If anything, realize that persistence and patience are the key ingredients to long-term success.

All research and analyses were conducted by the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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