Swimming Canada needs to stop disincentivizing its athletes from continuing to swim if it wants to have international success.

Last year, in a move that was notably outrageous even considering its long history of irrational behaviour, Swimming Canada produced a frustratingly confusing document outlining the selection criteria for its Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships teams. By the time the Trials finally arrived in April, it seemed nobody on the pool deck had managed to decipher it. “Just swim fast and we’ll see what happens,” were the words rolling off every coach’s tongue as they too struggled to make sense of it. I doubt even John Atkinson, the High Performance Director credited with its design, fully understood its implications.

It seems Swimming Canada drafted the 2014 selection criteria with flawed logic. Its first false assumption – that using unbiased time comparisons for team selection is too simple – inspired it to introduce subjectivity into an otherwise objective sport. The criteria had 8 layers of priority, each superseding the next, each quite technical and dependent on arbitrary outside forces, like the 16th time at World Championships from the previous year.1 The complicated priority system was responsible for most of the confusion at Canadian Trials, because event winners weren’t necessarily sure if they’d qualify for any teams. The result? Swimmers didn’t know who they were racing. Was it someone else in the pool, someone standing on deck, or someone on the other side of the world 8 months ago? Consequently, the get-your-hand-on-the-wall-first mentality that is so fundamental to the sport was muddled, making the Trials a less enjoyable experience for competitors and spectators alike.

But the real kicker was Priority 7, which introduced “Age Weighted Standards” for selection. Essentially, the criteria stated that if spots on teams were still vacant, younger swimmers that met an easier time standard could jump ahead of older swimmers that placed higher than them. Even if an “old” swimmer won an event at Trials, they could be withheld from the Commonwealth and Pan Pac teams to make room for a slower, “young” swimmer. The cut-off ages, which were determined by drawing slips of paper from a hat in a Swimming Canada boardroom,2 averaged mostly in the 20-22 range depending on gender and event distance.

Before I explain why using Age Weighted Standards to select the Senior National Team is ludicrous, I should clear up a few things. First of all, I don’t want to belittle anybody who did qualify for the teams on this condition. Based on the criteria Swimming Canada put forward, you earned a spot on the team, and you deserved to race internationally this summer. Second, I’d like to go ahead and acknowledge the fact that I do have personal bias on this subject, because I was one of the “older” swimmers that got shafted. Yes, I underperformed at Trials. If I’d swum faster, I would’ve qualified for the team ahead of Priority 7. You can accuse me of being bitter, but that’s not the point. This article is about Swimming Canada’s poor decision-making.

Its second false assumption – that it doesn’t need to pay attention to statistics concerning international performance – is what allowed the implementation of Age Weighted Standards. Here’s the critical fact it seems to have overlooked: the median age of all individual male medallists at the 2012 London Olympic Games was 25. That means half of the best male swimmers in the world are in their late 20s. Some are in their 30s. This is the age male swimmers are at the peak of their careers. This is where Swimming Canada should be focusing its resources, no?

Yet for some reason, Canadian swimming seems to be struggling to keep anybody in the sport long enough to reach age 25. In fact, the median age of all individual male medallists at the 2014 Canadian Trials was 20. Please tell me I’m not the only one that finds that figure alarming. Our best male swimmers are half a decade younger than the fastest in the world, when they’re statistically shown to be at the peak of their careers. Clearly, Swimming Canada should be doing everything in its power to incentivize keeping its athletes in the sport longer, right?

Apparently not; it’s doing exactly the opposite. By adding Age Weighted Standards to the selection criteria, Swimming Canada opted out of taking its fastest team; it gave priority to athletes in their younger 20s and gave the middle finger to several athletes older than that. As it turned out, the only male swimmer on a Canadian team this summer that met the age of 25 was Ryan Cochrane (who also happened to be our only male medallist). The standard explanation for this lunacy is that the Age Weighted Standards are supposed to afford younger, “on track” swimmers a chance at international experience. But is that not the purpose of Junior teams? If Swimming Canada is regressing its Senior National Team back to an Age Group mentality, clearly the Junior teams aren’t doing their job.

Not every swimmer follows the same progress curveThe entire “on track” system is defunct. Taking the best swimmers in the world and backtracking to map out their rate of improvement is interesting, but meaningless when it’s transplanted; not every swimmer follows the same progress curve. In fact, none of them do. Some athletes excel when they’re young and then never improve, some have unexpected breakouts late in their careers, some plateau due to injury but make an impressive comeback years later. It’s completely unrealistic to predict a swimmer’s potential years from now based on their current times. What should be taken into greater account is experience.

At the World University Games in Serbia in 2009, all of the Canadian swimmers and their coaches were raving about how valuable it was to have veterans like Keith Beavers and Brian Johns on the team. They were great leaders because they had so much international experience under their belts. What happened to this respect for experience in Canadian swimming? Rio is only two years away; the median age of this year’s male Pan Pac team will still only be 22.5 when the torch is lit. The Americans will presumably have legends like Phelps and Lochte leading their team – how many experienced leaders will our 22 year-olds have to look up to? Based on the “on track” timeline, it almost seems to me that Swimming Canada is discounting 2016 and setting its sights on Tokyo in 2020.

It’s entirely possible that “on track” swimmers will continue to develop and swim phenomenally down the road. I hope they do. You could argue it’s a positive thing our national team is so young, because it has enormous potential. That’s also true. However, potential is meaningless if it’s not translated to results. I know firsthand how difficult it is to continue in the sport you love past university, especially when its governing body is pushing you out the door. When I decided to delay the rest of my life after graduating in order to swim at the High Performance Centre in Toronto, I needed more incentive than ever to stay invested in the sport. Instead I felt the walls closing in; my eligibility for Developmental Carding was running out and the selection criteria was pitted against me.

If my generation was a lost cause in Swimming Canada’s eyes (despite the fact that myself and other committed “old” swimmers unjustly kept off the team are still young by international standards), and it was necessary to sweep us out to make room for the next batch of young talent, I at least hope Swimming Canada changes its policies to keep those swimmers in the pool for the long haul. Investing in “on track” athletes is only worthwhile if they actually stay on track. Is Swimming Canada changing its approach to ensure its young athletes have the incentive to reach their envisioned destinations? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem so.

I propose Mr. Atkinson be held to the same standardJohn Atkinson has declared that each year, the National Team will be harder to make.3 He is planning to implement detailed reviews of athletes to track and evaluate their performance (Dolores Umbridge anyone?). In an email, he stated, “Lack of improvement may result in an athlete being removed from carding, if measures are not implemented for this continual improvement to happen.” Apparently second chances don’t come cheap. While this hardline stance is well intentioned I’m sure, the reality is that every career has rough patches. Transition years happen. Injuries happen. Life happens. A carding salary is a welfare salary to begin with, and now Swimming Canada is apparently prepared to kick any swimmer to the curb that has a difficult season. This is surely not incentivizing continuity in the sport. I propose Mr. Atkinson be held to the same standard; his performance should be tracked and evaluated, and a lack of improvement in Canadian swimming should jeopardize his pay cheque. Add in Age Weighted Standards and he’s really in danger.

Instead of directing its resources toward swimmers at the peak of their careers, Swimming Canada seems to be focusing its attention on trying to ensure its athletes stay in Canada for university rather than heading to the US. Yes, I committed treason and sealed my destiny as an enemy of the state by studying south of the border. But I had also just turned 22 when I graduated. I was still much younger than the majority of the best male swimmers in the world. I was just entering the age range where I statistically had the most potential, so it felt strange to me that I was seemingly written off by Swimming Canada.

Rather than expending its energy fighting a losing battle to keep all talent away from American universities, why doesn’t Swimming Canada focus on keeping its athletes in the sport after graduation regardless of where they went to school? Again, that’s when males have the most potential. Trojan Swim Club, SwimMAC Carolina, and Club Wolverine are recognized as powerhouse post-grad programs in the US that continue to develop swimmers after they’ve exhausted their NCAA eligibility. Canada doesn’t have an equivalent; National Training Centres don’t have the same clout, at least yet, and some even seem to be struggling to attract talent. It probably doesn’t help then that multiple National Training Centre swimmers were unfairly barred from the Commonwealth and Pan Pac teams.

I want to make it clear that I love Canada and I love Canadian swimming; that’s one of the reasons I chose to return to Toronto4 despite the tempting Stanford post-grad program (which is another very high performing group with an amazing training environment). I fully support all Canadian swimmers on the international stage and wish them the best. What I don’t support is Swimming Canada discriminating by age in its National Team selection, especially when their reasoning contradicts fact. I understand that there’s no such thing as perfect selection criteria, but I’m convinced Swimming Canada can produce something more fair and less arbitrary than last year’s mess. At the moment, the fastest men in Canada are significantly younger than what is statistically shown to be the age male swimmers peak; while this could be promising for the Canadian National Team, potential will only translate to results if these swimmers are kept in the sport. Swimming Canada needs to stop disincentivizing its athletes from continuing to swim if it wants to have international success. I sincerely hope it changes its attitude and starts giving older swimmers more support.

I retired from swimming for a number of reasons, but my frustration with Swimming Canada was one of the most prominent. I’ve heard plenty of discontent within the Canadian swimming community; I’m writing on behalf of many athletes still involved in the sport who feel they can’t speak up for fear of repercussion. I wasn’t the only victim of Swimming Canada’s ridiculous selection criteria, and I even sensed unease from those that benefited from it. Maybe I’m just bitter from being robbed of a trip to Scotland and/or Australia this summer – but wouldn’t you be?

Though I know for a fact many Canadian swimmers agree with my sentiments, I’m sure not everyone does. Whatever your opinion, don’t hesitate to comment below.

[1] What do I mean when I say last year’s “Top 16” times are arbitrary standards? Here are a few examples showing how the 16th place time from the 2013 World Championships ranks against the world in 2014, as of the completion of Pan Pacs. Notice how much the world rankings vary, demonstrating the inequality in the time standards:

Women Men
100 breast 1:08.36 = 39th 1:00.44 = 21st
200 fly 2:11.14 = 60th 1:57.37 = 37th
400 free 4:12.47 = 77th 3:50.87 = 57th

[2] At least I can’t imagine any other reasonable way they were determined.

[3] And this strategy is supposed to improve Canada’s international medal count? Leaving more swimmers off teams won’t magically help the remaining National Team members perform any better. Raising the bar on selection criteria means lowering the population of Canadian swimmers.

[4] The second reason I chose to return to Toronto is because it was forced upon me by an inexplicable rule: Canadians don’t get government funding if they’re not living within Canada. It’s just another method of discrimination; if someone wants to represent Canada why should it matter where they train? All that should matter are the results. Even China allowed Sun Yang and Ye Shiwan to train in Australia; in fact, the country allegedly paid Australian coaches hefty salaries to coach its most prized possessions. Why is training in a foreign country such a crime if it’s helping Canadian swimming?

Notes:

When calculating the median age of medallists, I counted each medal as a person, even if multiple medals belonged to the same swimmer.

2012 London Olympics – Male Medallist Ages:

50 free: 21, 28, 27; 100 free: 23, 21, 28; 200 free: 20, 20, 22; 400 free: 20, 22, 28; 1500 free: 20, 23, 28; 100 back: 27, 26, 22; 200 back: 23, 22, 28; 100 breast: 24, 26, 31; 200 breast: 23, 24, 23; 100 fly: 27, 20, 29; 200 fly: 20, 27, 28; 200 IM: 27, 29, 26; 400 IM: 29, 26, 18; Open Water: 28, 32, 22

2014 Canadian Trials – Male Medallist Ages:

200 free: 25, 20, 21; 100 back: 19, 23, 19; 200 breast: 21, 20, 18; 100 free: 17, 23, 20; 100 breast: 21, 18, 20; 400 IM: 20, 18, 19; 400 free: 25, 22, 17; 100 fly: 21, 18, 18; 200 back: 19, 23, 21; 200 fly: 23, 20, 20; 50 free: 17, 22, 24; 200 IM: 18, 18, 20; 1500 free: 25, 19, 25

2014 Canadian Pan Pac Team – Male Ages:

17, 18, 18, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21, 21, 21, 21, 22, 24, 25

Selection Criteria:

2014CWGselectioncriteria

2014PanPacselectioncriteria