The Pros and Cons of Being a Versatile Swimmer

Daiya Seto of Japan celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 400m Individual Medley Men Final during the FINA Swimming Short Course World Championships at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, December 17th, 2022. Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The Pros and Cons of Being a Versatile Swimmer

By Maggie Lasto

Being a versatile swimmer is like being the jack of all trades. It means you are decent at everything but not necessarily great at anything. This experience resonates with many swimmers as they struggle with finding their true path. Learning to swim at a young age means becoming comfortable with the ins and outs of the sport and developing skills in each of the four strokes. Eventually though, most kids find that they enjoy one event more than the rest. They find that their body is meant for moving in ways that benefit their stroke, and little by little they create their own swimming identity.

But some swimmers aren’t as lucky. Being good at many events but unable to find the one for them – the one they love and really excel in – can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Pros: 


Photo Courtesy: Maddie Kyler

Coach Loves You Can Swim Anywhere and Everywhere

Your flexibility is sure to score you immediate brownie points with your coach. Since you have the ability to swim so many different events, and swim them well, he/she can feel confident placing you anywhere. Imagine that the team you’re competing against at your next dual meet is very strong in the IM events. You can probably find yourself swimming them to help fill a hole in the lineup. Undoubtedly, your coach and your teammates appreciate you for this, because getting the win and scoring points when and where they’re needed is something very few people can do.

You Get to Mix Up Practices/Workouts

Let’s face it – nothing is better than seeing “choice” written on the board and having a plethora of events to choose from. When everyone else is swimming freestyle as their choice for the twentieth time, you are simply making the rounds through the strokes. Every practice comes as a surprise to you, because you never know what to expect. Sure, you may have to struggle through a distance workout one day, but this will only make you appreciate those sprint days even more. It’s nice to spice things up and veer from the same old workout.

Boredom is Avoidable


Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr / Swimming Australia Ltd.

Nothing is duller than repeating the same thing over and over, day in and day out. Being a versatile swimmer means you are constantly learning new things. You have so much to learn and many areas in which to concentrate and make progress. You have breakouts to practice, kicks to master and a variety of distances to work on racing strategically. Every meet is an opportunity to watch, compete, and become smarter in whichever event you chose that day.

You Are a Best-Kept Secret

How can your competitors possibly know where you’ll be placed in the lineup when every event is up for grabs? When your season bests put you in the conference top five in over six events, your competitors must rely on their guessing game to predict the events you’ll choose to swim. Unlike the specialized swimmers who can only be competitive in the 50, 100 and 200 of their stroke, you have the freedom to decide what to pick. In this case, your competitors can’t look out or prepare for you: you’ll just have to surprise them. It can be a successful strategy to catch opponents off guard and give you an edge.

You’re Less Prone to Injury

The majority of swimming injuries occur from overuse. Our bodies can only take so much of repeated movements. When we specialize in a specific stroke, certain muscles, tendons and joints get used more than others. This can lead to injuries like tendonitis, knee pain, or “swimmer’s elbow” and may take extended amounts of time from which to recover. Mixing up the strokes you swim allows your body to work in all sorts of ways while giving different muscles and joints equal time of work and rest.


Coach Loves You Can Swim Anywhere and Everywhere

Yes, this idea acts as both a pro and as a con. While it is nice to know that coach has the confidence in you to put you anywhere you are needed, this puts a lot of pressure on you to succeed. Being thrown into different events at each meet and not knowing what you’ll be needed to swim from one day to the next makes it hard to prepare for meet day. Let’s not forget to mention that the events you are thrown in probably aren’t laid out effectively either. Most of the time, you swim back-to-back events or are put in the 200 fly and 400 IM in the same meet. While it’s nice to be able to be a team player, sometimes you just want to swim an event for you, and that’s okay. Being the “filler” takes away the enjoyment of swimming an event because you have chosen and prepared to do so on your own.

Nothing Becomes “Your Thing”

A swimmer’s identity is heavily shaped by their best events. Specialized swimmers are able to bond with other teammates and competitors who are successful in the same areas that they are. When practice gets divided into stroke lanes, they know their place and find their buddies, but versatile swimmers don’t have this. They are unable to find their niche – the place where they belong. This makes it difficult to fall in love with a specific stroke or event, and they struggle to make that attachment. Versatile swimmers often get asked, “What do you swim?” and no matter how many times they are asked, it’s hard to come up with the right answer.

It is Harder to Improve Your Times


Photo Courtesy: Brian Jenkins-UVM Athletics

Some swimmers work their whole lives to improve their one best event. They focus their time, energy and concentration on reaching their specific goals. Versatile swimmers wish this was them, but they don’t have that one goal to set or one event to concentrate on. Practicing different things all the time makes it difficult to perfect their technique and get physically stronger in any one aspect of swimming. Instead, what usually happens is that they find themselves swimming an event only once at the beginning of the season and then they are suddenly signed up to swim it at championships because their time had put them in a top spot. If only they had known this would happen from the beginning of the season, they would have made it their event to focus on throughout the season.

The Struggle to Figure Out Your Place is Exhausting

Being great at something is what all athletes strive for. As swimmers, it is all about appreciating the little things you improve on every race. Gradually, personal bests add up, and before you know it, your time is fast! It’s the little improvements and achievements that keep your fire burning. Each best time leaves you excited for the next and pushes you to work even harder. This aspect of swimming, however, requires you to race your event multiple times: something versatile swimmers don’t have the luxury of. While they work just as hard at practice and give it their all at meets, they tend to see less success. Each year becomes an experiment; a quest to find their way; a path to their destination. They are constantly fighting themselves mentally to figure out where they will succeed, saying, “Maybe this will be a sprint year,” or “Hey, my fly feels strong right now,” or “My freestyle technique seems off.” This constant battle back and forth can be exhausting.

Taper is Complicated

Nothing is harder than trying to develop a taper for someone swimming the 1,000 free, 100 fly and 400 IM at championships. Oh, and don’t forget the 50 freestyle as the anchor of the 200 medley relay. Does this swimmer focus on sprints? Pace work? IM transition turns? With basically every end of the swimming spectrum met, it is almost impossible to know what to concentrate on. Training all year long has been a mishmash of sets and stroke work, so it’s best to stick with that philosophy and hope for the best, right?

Being a versatile swimmer means you are forced to constantly battle with what you believe is right and wrong. It makes you a smarter swimmer, because in the quest to find your best stroke, you must analyze the way you swim each one. But at the same time, this can be an exhausting challenge. You wish you weren’t wasting your time at being “good” in a variety of different ways. If this sounds like you, how do you deal with the situations you are faced with? Do the pros outweigh the cons? If they don’t, keep working hard. Your event is in their somewhere, you just need to find 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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Shaheen Alghofari
5 years ago

Joe Stott

5 years ago

Another fantastic article! You make reading these articles seem like we are an actual swimmer. It makes it that much better to read even if your not a swimmer!

5 years ago

Coach loves all types!! Nice article!

Charity Adams-McCafferty

Caileigh McCafferty

Ashleigh Green
5 years ago

Lynn Green

Jim Bowser
5 years ago

IM er always welcome

cynthia m curran
5 years ago

Well, I think doing more Im or the different strokes even if you are crappy at backstroke or breaststroke or fly is better than doing more yardage of freestyle. Micheal Phelps or Ryan Lochte show that Im training is the best way to create an all around swimmer.

Andrea Spina
5 years ago

Carson Spina

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