20 Year of USA Swimming Olympic Trials Cuts: Men's Edition

As trials cuts season glows bright in the US, we thought it would be interesting to break down how the cuts have evolved over the last 20 years. Men this week, women next week.

I feel inclined to give a familiar disclaimer: I am not a professional statistician, and my attention to detail is not ideal for this type of work - just an interested observer trying to make sense of the world.

Here is the raw data and some basic analysis, organized by event list

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Now here it is again, reorganized by percentage change

Top event being the one with the greatest change in the time standard over time, bottom of the list if the cuts that have remained more stable.

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Let’s break it down

Worth considering: as we try to pull some general analysis from the trials cuts data, please consider the likelihood that this analysis will not illuminate the whole picture of performance evolution. In a future post, it might be interesting to analyze the results across the top percentage of performances AT trials.

Distance Events Hold Strong

Cuts have held relatively steady in the longer freestyle events, let’s take a swing at why that might be…

The “Soft Millennial” Theory

Analysis shows a relatively small percentage change in the freestyle distance events (400 and 1500- the 800 will be offered for men for the first time in 2020). There is an observable, pervasive wisdom in the swimming community which states that these cuts have not improved much, thanks to the current generation of young swimmer’s unwillingness to do the volume of work necessary to perform in these events. Not sure how I feel about this one (disclaimer, millennial speaking)- there are MANY, albeit perhaps less, excellent programs around the country playing successfully in high volume training. Although it is hard to argue that the longer aerobic events populate the bottom of the chart.

The Attention Span Theory

Another common conception is that our current age groupers lack the patience and attention span needed to compete in longer events. I’m inclined towards this explanation over the “soft millennial” theory above. Seems to me, swimmers across the county are working incredibly hard and there has to an explanation adjacent a decline in work ethic. Attention span, on the other hand, can be indicative of a choice - in other words, many modern swimmers, perhaps, prefer the type of work that is in line with shorter events; not because it is easier, but for some other reason (post for another time).

No matter your take, the fact that these cuts have not dropped much over two decades provides an interesting opportunity for age-groupers today. At least those who are inclined in that direction.

Large Improvements in Short Event standards

A slightly less cynical take

Perhaps it isn’t that the distance events have improved a small amount but rather the sprint events have improved by a great deal. Here how…

Reason #1- Underwater Dolphin Kicking

The first reason for improved speed in shorter events is thanks to the wide adoption of underwater dolphin kicking. As we know, a good dolphin kicker is faster underwater than above; swimmers around the world now take that fact for granted.

An argument can be made that underwater dolphin kicking imposed it initial influence on the sport much earlier (which is researched and broken down brilliantly in this swimming wold post- “the history of underwater dolphin kicking”). However, we can explain its wider impact as a “trickle down” effect. As stated above, the lag between elite on-boarding of skills and wider adoption has shortened, nevertheless it still exists. Thus, we would expect to see dolphin kicking’s impact on sprint events (especially fly and back) effect the cuts through the 2000s and be more ubiquitous through the 2010s

Reason #2- Information super highway

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when it was (more) difficult for the average coach to know what was going on among elite coaches and swimmers. Swimming fast is a complicated amalgam of training, varied forms of preparedness and execution. Thanks to the internet, the speed at which information can disseminate from top coaches has increased exponentially. One would expect the impact of improved information sharing would impact the execution heavy events more than the longer aerobic events. For example…

  • 200 IM for the win

The 200 IM is, perhaps, the most execution heavy event in competitive swimming; skills across all strokes and transitions play a role in the improvement here. Thanks to the internet, more swimmers and coaches are exposed to the series of skills needed to perform in this race. If we are going to make an argument that the internet has improved the ability of the average swimmer to learn new skills, we would also assume the most execution heavy event would be the greatest benefactor. Add the massive impact of underwater dolphin kicking into the equation and we have a much faster crop of IMers across all levels.

  • 100 Fly + 100 Back

Huge improvements in these events over the last 20 years appears to be easily explained by the pervasiveness of underwater dolphin kicking. Of course, other factors play a role in these race’s evolutions, but they all pale in comparison to a swimmer consistently pushing their walls out 15 meters.

  • 100 Breaststroke

From a technique perspective, it is reasonable to make the argument that breaststroke has undergone the greatest changes over the last 20-30 years. We took a deep dive into this concept in a previous post (a note on breaststroke kick and lines). Modern sprint breaststrokers tend to swim with a higher tempo and more power, which is the primary reason for the drop in times here.

What’s up with the 2004-2008 Anomaly?

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Perhaps one of the most noticeable anomalies in the cuts data is that between 2004 and 2008 something very rare happens, all the cuts… get slower… than many hold mostly steady for 2012. After a bit of digging I was able to account for the anomaly quite simply. The venue was changed: 2008 was the first year we hosted trials in Omaha. Apparently, there was some debate over whether to grow the meet’s numbers with the “growing side” winning. Thus, more seats to fill, means more swimmers and more fans.

Women’s cuts next week.

What else jumps out at you? Let us know!

Thanks as always for reading and sharing,

Jeff Gross

Founder, techniqgroup.com