Around this time of year, as college programs fight for conference supremacy, there's a familiar refrain. It can be heard on pool decks across the country, as coaches chat through warmup. It's on collegeswimming.com message boards. It's in swimswam articles:
"Boy this meet's getting FAST. It took (time for 16th place in this year's meet) to make it back in the 400 IM!"
The question I always want to ask is, "is it really?". The answer in most cases, is no. There are several problems with the logic usually used to arrive at these conclusions.
Not to pick on poor Samuel Wood, who did a great service covering the above mentioned CCSA meet for Swimswam, but one factor he used to deduce that, in fact, the CCSA meet was "getting fast" was the amount of records broken in the meet. He was right- the CCSA meet is getting faster, even relative to the competition, but records are not the best example of how.
Unfortunately record breaking has been going on, at quite a rapid pace, for all of modern recorded swimming history. It seems hardly to be abating, despite dire predictions over various points of time that drugs or swimwear would make "unbreakable" records. In fact, if you are not breaking records on a yearly basis you are likely backsliding. Record breaking needs some context, to be sure.
Take, for instance, a gander at day 3 of this year's SEC Championship results. Then check out the same day of NCAA's, just nine years ago (2005). It's easy for me to remember that back in those days, the NCAA Championship was a meet that routinely blew my mind with how "fast" it was. In less than a decade, the definition of "fast" has been completely rewritten so that a conference championship can have both a faster top end and more depth.
On the flip side, I've actually been to a conference championship meet where the coaches sat grumbling that the meet was actually slower. It was the 2012 ACC Championships at Virginia Tech, and there was considerable grumbling (right or wrong) that the pool was "slow" and causing both slower winning times as well as depth in the meet. A high proportion of swimmers bettering their times at last chance meets the week after didn't help quell the rumors, and it appears that the ACC Championship won't be back in Blacksburg again for this very reason.
I write all this not to rain on anyone's parade, but more to suggest that everyone look for context beyond their small swimming world before getting caught up in the hype. It's something I think about particularly these days as I inhabit one of the smallest "major" swimming communities out there. I find myself constantly checking when I hear someone is "ranked no. 1" or "Danish Champion". I need the results to be in context- would they be as good anywhere else? I know that the rest of the world won't stop for us to pat ourselves on the back- they're too busy racing ahead.