The Surprising Role of Luck in a Swim Meet


A while ago I wrote about how the general public could be forgiven for thinking that swimming is a non-contact sport (here). After all, they only see swimmers compete in their own lane, unaware of the flailing sea of humanity that represents a typical practice pool.

Well, after our last meet I found another thing the general public will have a hard time imagining. The role of luck in a swim meet, and especially an age group meet.

NOTE: It’s also important to mention that an experienced, determined swimmer can and will lessen the impact of an unlucky situation on their performance. But it may take a lot of experience to get to that point.

The meet I’m talking about here was one we go to every year, and we tapered for it. SC heats, LC finals. I thought I knew what to expect in terms of the environment. But this year, the meet was far bigger than ever before, with wide ranging impacts.


The Warmupcrowded-pool-china

The first day we had over 1000 swimmers in the session, and warmups had to be split into three 25-minute sessions divided by team. Each warmup had well over 300 swimmers, and no separate warmup/cooldown pool.

UNLUCKY: You’re in the first far-too-brief warmup, and then have to sit on a very crowded pool deck for another hour before the meet even starts.

NOT QUITE SO UNLUCKY: You’re in the last far-too-brief warmup, get to arrive an hour later to the pool, and have a chance for the warmup to actually be of value for your first race.


The Long Sessions

IMG_20190517_162813Meet sessions in Ontario are limited to 4.5 hours, and each of the sessions in this meet pushed those limits. Another important point is that the heats were split by gender into two 25-metre sessions, and they combined all ages into one big group.

UNLUCKY: You have hours between races , and no warmup/cooldown pool. Often the muscles are cold by the time you race.

UNLUCKY: Combining all ages into one big set of heats, plus splitting the genders can create situations where swimmers can have two races within a very short period of time – in the faster heats of one race, and slower heats of the next race. Retaining heats by age group ensures these short intervals between races doesn’t happen.

LUCKY: You have 30 minutes to an hour between races.


Race Situations

Honestly, this is where most of the luck comes into play.uneven start

UNLUCKY: You’re either by far the slowest or the fastest of all the swimmers around you. As a result, you don’t get the adrenaline rush of racing someone.

UNLUCKY: You’re in the outside lanes. Last year I did an analysis of the impact of being in Lanes 0 or 9 in the 10-lane Windsor pool for the Eastern Canadian Championships (here). Briefly, swimmers in outside lanes beat their seed times up to 15% less than the inside lanes.

LUCKY: You have somebody to race who is near you, and slightly faster.



The Saturday finals had 5 pm warmups, and were schedule to finish by 7:30 pm. Except due to problems with the timing system they didn’t finish until after 9 pm. Which means the swimmers left the pool at about 9:30 pm, hadn’t eaten yet, and Sunday morning warmups started at 7 am.

UNLUCKY: All finalists

LUCKY: Nobody


Sickness / Injury

Inevitably, somebody on the team is sick or injured or dealing with life’s challenges.

UNLUCKY: Any of the above issues.

LUCKY: You’re healthy and in the zone.



The above isn’t intended to provide excuses for swimmer’s performances, but rather to explain to parents and younger swimmers how the conditions for racing are almost never the same from one race to another, or one meet to another. Despite the optics of a separate lane, there’s a lot more affecting a performance than just getting up and swimming.

The reality is that the more determined and the more experienced a swimmer is, the less that these unlucky situations affect their racing.




2 thoughts on “The Surprising Role of Luck in a Swim Meet

  1. This is similar to “big” races like city marathons where you have to arrive very early to get a parking sport (or be lucky and get dropped off or they provide buses from a large parking lot to the start) and maybe have some time to join the lineups at the porta-potty. Then you stand around in the line up with thousands of others and pray that you wore enough clothing to keep warm while standing there but not so much that you’ll overheat when you’re running. If you’re not an elite person then it takes several minutes just to get to the starting line after the gun goes off. And then you may be running in a big crowd for the first few km since a lot of people either are unable to predict their race time or don’t know it and stand with their friends in the line/corrals with the faster times. Of course you can add unpredictable whether conditions for the several hours you’ll be running. For the average(?) marathoner it’s really satisfying to make a personal best under these conditions.

    1. Sounds very true, Jim. I’ve been in mass start cycling rides as well, and it can be a half hour before you get to the starting line. But I think a big difference between mass start races and competition swimming is the illusion of a very controlled, luck-less race. Thankfully competition swimming in a pool doesn’t have feeding stations!

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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