The 411 on Transitioning from High School to College Swimming

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By Grace Nordquist, Swimming World College Intern.

Senior year of high school can be a difficult time for students. They’re faced with important decisions that will have a lasting impact on their future. For athletes, transitioning from high school to college athletics brings a whole new level of competition and commitment. To help prospective college freshman swimmers, here are some of the biggest differences between high school and college swimming.

The Events 


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This is one of the more obvious and technical differences between college and high school swimming. Perhaps you competed on a club team that had 200s of strokes, the 400 IM, the 1,000, the mile, and the 400 medley and 800 free relays. But your high school team did not. If you’ve never done any of these events in club, college could be a rude awakening when your coach throws you in the 200 fly.

If you have the option, branch out and try these events before starting your collegiate career. You may not end up swimming them in college, but it’s better to try it out first in club than in a college meet. If you think just because you’ve done the 100 of a stroke for years you’ll master the 200, you’re wrong. But maybe you’ll excel in these new events more than the events you did in high school. It’s exciting to explore your options. Also, just because you swam it in high school (or maybe you’re entire swimming career) doesn’t mean you’ll do it college. Be open-minded to trying new events – you never know what could happen.

“Picture Day”

10.19.2018- Swim and dive team and senior pix. Photo by Mary Butkus/WUSTL Photographic Services

Photo Courtesy: Mary Butkus/WUSTL

In high school, coach would hand out the envelope forms so your parents could order buttons and wallet-sized photos to hand out to extended family. In college, picture day is more a “media day.” You’ll have pictures taken – typically head shots – that the school posts on the team’s online roster. This picture may also be used for media (like news articles) that you’re featured in.

In addition to the head shots, a team photo with either your suits, warm ups, team shirt, professional clothes, etc. is taken. Sometimes action shots are used for a team poster that includes the season schedule.



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The coaching style is going to be different. This is true for every team no matter the level. In college, your coach may do more or less yards than you’re used to. There could be different equipment that your high school never used. The times you practice will most likely change, which will take some adjustment.

The coach may be a yeller or more reserved. Unlike high school, your coach might swear from time to time when they’re excited or upset. Whatever it may be, it’s important for you to get to know what type of a coach they are before committing. It’s okay for them to be different than your high school coach, but if they’re a completely new style that you may not work with very well, that’s a red flag. Don’t be afraid to ask coaches what their coaching style is and what work outs look like. You’re making a big decision, and they’re going to play a major role in your life for the next four years. Ask questions, and get a feel for the coach.

Strength and Conditioning/Nutrition Coaches 


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The odds of you having a strength and conditioning coach specifically for swimming or a nutrition coach in high school are slim. If you did, consider yourself lucky. This is a whole new type of coaching that you may not be familiar with. While they’re not your head coaches, they’re here to help improve your swimming. Your swim coaches communicate with them, and they trust their judgement on what works best with swimmers.

Not all schools have this, and it’s more common but not limited to D1 schools. If you’re fortunate to have these coaches, be sure to utilize their expertise. What you do out of the water is important and helps your training in the water. This may have not been something that was stressed in high school but can become your greatest strength in college.



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In high school, your parents probably played a big role in your swimming. They made sure you were up in time for practice, got you to the bus, packed snacks for your meet, and much more. We’re thankful for all that our parents did for us growing up in the sport. But now that you’re away from home, you are now responsible for yourself.

We know that just because you’re a freshman doesn’t mean you’re a child, but we also know becoming independent comes with responsibility. It’s up to you to balance your schedule between school, swimming, other clubs or activities, and a social life. You’ll have advisors, mentors, upperclassmen, coaches, etc. to help you, but in the end, it’s up to you. It’s an adjustment, and you’ll quickly learn that you’re now a young adult faced with many decisions: whether you clean up your room or not, if you’ll eat healthy for dinner or go to McDonald’s, or how to schedule appointments. Use things like a planner to help get organized. Also, make sure to set an alarm (or two); don’t count on your roommate waking you up. No one wants to be the freshman the bus is waiting on.



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While it can be an uncomfortable and awkward topic to discuss, it’s no secret that athletes can get paid through scholarships in college. NCAA DIII institutions are the exception to this, as they are only allowed to give academic scholarships. Your job as an incoming freshman is to discuss this with your coach. Often, parents will be involved in these discussions, which can help. It’s important to know your worth but also to be realistic. Full ride scholarships are awesome but sparse. Some programs have more funding then others, and it all depends on the school. This is something you never had to deal with before, but if you decide on a school that offers athletic scholarships, take them seriously.



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Depending on what high school you went to, you may have had a lot of work that prepared you for college. Either way, collegiate academics are going to be a lot of work. It is a whole new level of studying and course load. Don’t be frightened by this: it’s just something that takes adjustment. Finals in college will be a little more stressful than the finals you had in high school. You’ll write papers longer than you have before, and the deadlines will be much quicker. This is all to help you prepare for whatever field you plan to go into.

In high school, you may have had a mandatory or optional study hall during the day. In college, that is done on your own time. Some teams will have mandatory “study halls” where the team meets for an hour or two in the library or scheduled room. The coach will treat this like a practice, so it’s important for you to show up. Just like in high school, you’re a student-athlete with the “student” part coming first.



Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Finally, there’s going to be more competition in college than in high school. This isn’t only with opposing teams either. You may have been the star swimmer on your high school team, but odds are that you’re going to be an average swimmer on your team. This isn’t something to be sad about; in fact, it’s good if you’re average, because that means your team is fast too.

It’s important to have a humble mentality when transitioning from the high school star to college. If you don’t, you’ll eventually be humbled by the competition.

That also means you might run into a “Katie Ledecky” or “Ryan Murphy” from time to time (incredible athletes who regularly destroy most of the competition), especially if you’re competing at the DI level. Don’t let this discourage you; instead, be grateful that you get to compete with other athletes who are committed to the same sport as you. College swimming is a whole new level, and swimmers are there because they chose to be. College swimmers are the ones who were dedicated and loved the sport enough to continue on for another four years. Collegiate swimmers are the ones who continue despite the early mornings, late night studying, and constant grind for the sport they love. If you’re willing – with responsibility, commitment, and hard work – you can be a part of this elite group too.

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