How to Thrive at Your First National Level Swim Meet

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How to Thrive at Your First National Level Swim Meet

You made it. You put in the work, got under the qualifying time, and now you are headed to your first national level meet. While this can be exciting, the meet itself can also be a source of stress. National meets bring with them faster competition and higher stakes. This bigger stage can really throw us off, especially on our first go-round.

I swam my first national level meet in the summer of 2019: Summer Junior Nationals at Stanford University. My first event was my best event, the 1500 free. I was seeded near the top of my heat, so I figured that I could go out with the leaders. I also knew that I had a shot at the Olympic Trials cut, and thought that I would need to win the heat to get it. However, in doing this, I ignored my usual racing plan – I always negative split my races. This cost me, as I wound up over 20 seconds off my best time and in last place in my heat.

While my first race at Juniors was not one to remember, it helped me get back to my race plan. I swam smarter in my other two swims, the 400 free and 800 free, which led to two best times. It was good that I learned this, but I hope that by writing this, some of you can avoid the mistakes I made in that 1500.

Stick to Your Plan

The most important thing I took away from my 1500 was to stick to my race plan. If a strategy has taken you to the national level, that strategy works, and it should not be changed at the last minute. This is especially key at national meets, because almost everybody is working off of a full taper, meaning that they will have a ton of speed. Since swimmers often feel great, there is a tendency to go out too fast and fade on the back half. It is important to not get too worried about what everybody else is doing, especially in a longer race.

For example, in my 400 free, I made it a point to put on the blinders for the first 50. I flipped in last at both the 50 and 100 marks before ultimately finishing third in the heat. For reference as to how fast people were going out, my first 100 on my previous best time was a 1:00.3. At Juniors, I took the race out in 58.3 and was still last in my heat. The field definitely has a tendency to go out too fast at national level meets, and you should make sure to maintain your own race plan no matter what everybody else is doing.

Adjusting to a New Environment

For most swimmers, their first national level meet takes place at an unfamiliar location. You want to quickly become familiar with the area  in order to limit any uncertainty before or during the race. While most swimmers instinctively know to look for locker rooms or warmup areas, another important thing to figure out is the visibility of the scoreboard. At the 2019 US Open, for example, you could not see the scoreboard from the warmup pool, so I used the pace clock to keep track of how long I had before my race. Little things like this will keep your nerves down before your race.

It is also important to familiarize yourself with the pool. Make sure to practice plenty of starts and turns so that you know what to expect in your race. The distance from the target on the bottom of the pool to the wall tends to vary from pool to pool, so figuring out the walls should be a priority in warm-up. This way, you limit surprises in your race.

Another part of the setting that is helpful to consider is the video review station. All the races at national level meets are recorded, and you can typically view and download race videos. This was helpful for me throughout the meet, because it allowed me to see the mistakes I was making and fix them accordingly. If you bring a flash drive, you can also take the race videos home with you for later viewing.

Managing Distractions

These national level meets also bring with them significant distractions. One thing that may occupy your focus is the presence of college coaches at these meets. You may want to talk to a few coaches while they are there, which is perfectly fine as long as it does not interfere with your swimming. You should plan to speak to coaches either on days when you are not swimming or after you have finished swimming for the day. This way, you can focus on one thing at a time. Also, do not stress too much about meeting with coaches! Remember, they are often trying to impress you as much as you are trying to impress them.

Another distraction that comes with high-level meets is the presence of popular swimmers. Seeing the names of Olympians and National Team members on the psych sheet can be exciting, but their name value can also psych you out. This goes back to keeping the focus on your own race. You cannot control who you are racing or how they will swim, you can only control yourself.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you have earned your place at whatever meet you are attending. New national level swimmers often feel that they do not belong, and this can be a destructive mentality for racing. But you should know that you have every right to be at the meet for which you have qualified. Forget about all these distractions, and just go out and reap the rewards of your effort. You have earned it.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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