The Value of Swimmer Versatility Cannot be Overlooked


The Value of Swimmer Versatility Cannot be Overlooked

By Jaime Chen, Swimming World Intern

The sport of swimming lends itself to two camps. Specialists. And multi-eventers. Both have their place, and appreciation for their talents can be shared. But there is something unique about athletes who excel over several distances and in many strokes. Here’s a tip of the cap to versatility.

Why do we stray away from versatility?

Versatile swimmers are typically developed from a young age. From the first time learning to swim butterfly to the dreaded IM sets, coaches often train new and young swimmers to do all four strokes. The “best event” label has not yet been assigned, and these young swimmers are still maturing.

However, the farther down the swimmer path we go, the more we tend to gravitate toward a certain event or stroke. We can attribute this to the need to “identify” ourselves as well as our desire to feel accomplished. This specialization also tends to lead us toward giving up on our less developed, less favorable strokes. Instead, we draw our attention to just a small pool of events. We begin training in groups based on sprint versus distance or by stroke, dividing into different lanes, sets, and maybe even dryland routines.

Versatility in training

Of course, there are many benefits to channeling energy into certain events, as often seen at high levels of swimming. We are able to focus on and better master techniques of one stroke. We can develop the specific muscle groups for a stroke. We can even come to practice with our minds ready to take on a stroke set. This type of training, if done right, often yields results that we like to see, with significant time drops and new and bigger meet opportunities.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But what happens if an injury hits, or you hit a frustrating plateau while training for a certain event? Obstacles arise as we progress with swimming, many of which are unforeseen. This is where maintained versatility comes in to play.

Swim practices on the daily can become rather mundane if you are training the same stroke nearly every day. But to be able to pick and choose between multiple strokes and multiple set types as a versatile swimmer provides room to breathe when you feel burnout.

Cross-training, or training other strokes, has also been said to help your main events. As an example, some coaches believe that training longer freestyle will help 200 flyers. Others may believe that training butterfly can help with breaststroke. The reason for many of these beliefs is that swimming is still swimming, regardless of stroke. There are overlaps between all four strokes and the range of distances we swim. To list a few of these, the rhythmic movement of butterfly and breaststroke, the muscles groups used in backstroke and freestyle, and the importance of underwater kicking in backstroke and butterfly.

Versatility at the college level

As I mentioned, many college level programs separate their swimmers into specific stroke and distance groups. While this is true, the value of versatility at this level of competition is significant. When recruiting, coaches look at not just the times of a recruit but also potential and team fit. Colleges have the chance to create their own perfect teams, and with recruiting, they plan event lineups to maximize points at meets. One year, they may need more butterfliers, and another they may be looking for sprint freestylers. Versatile swimmers, thus, open up more doors for recruitment because of their potential in a great range of events.

Coaches often seek out versatile swimmers because they can swim such a variety of events. If one swimmer unexpectedly cannot swim a race, a gap may be found in the lineup. This hole, then, is perfect for the versatile swimmer to fill.

The value

That is not to say that swimmers should not dedicate themselves to the races they hold dear to them. After all, those events are the reason you swim. Nevertheless, versatility is still something to be heavily considered when training. It can bring about further success, whether you want to improve your main events or swim in college, while also keeping the passion for swimming alive through a diversified and varied practice routine. There is just so much value in keeping other events just within arm’s reach.

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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Ryan Lokken
4 months ago

I was a distance swimmer in college but my ability to swim 100 &200 back and fly were critical when my team need to place 2 swimmers top 6 in every event and the other teams by surprise when I swam 200 back instead of 500 free.