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Seeding Policy Woes

by Swimmer Henry Mecredy
South Texas LMSC

For years I have objected to the way Masters meets are seeded.

The seeding method used in USMS arranges the swimmers in a heat so that there is a fast swimmer in the middle lane, with a slower swimmer on each side. Two still-slower swimmers are then placed in the next two outside lanes, and so on until the heat is full.

With this policy, swimmers of identical or very similar speed almost always end up separated from one another, with faster swimmers in between. This is because the seeding method creates heats that look like an arrowhead, with a point in the middle (the fastest swimmer in the heat) and the other swimmers trailing on each side like geese.

I attended a meet recently where four swimmers were seeded at 1:15 in the 100-yard IM. Because of the seeding method, two of them ended up on one side of the pool, another on the opposite side of the pool, and the fourth in a totally different heat! This phenomenon is quite common at Masters meets. Take a look at a heat sheet and you'll see what I mean.

In my opinion, this seeding technique detracts from both the egalitarian principles of Masters swimming and from its pure excitement. First, there's no sound reason consistent with USMS basic principles that some swimmers should systematically be given “good” lanes and others bad lanes. Second, only the fastest swimmer in each heat swims next to close competitors, while all the rest of the swimmers are separated from their peers. But swimming next to swimmers that are about your speed is fun and exciting, and it makes you swim fast! That's a big part of what people get out of Masters competition, yet the seeding method makes it rare.

The existing seeding approach makes a limited amount of sense in “elimination”-style competition, where it originated. There, swimmers must qualify with a good time for advancement to finals, and there is a “top seed.” But all Masters heats are timed finals: no one must qualify with a previous time to advance to a subsequent heat, and no one must qualify to enter a Masters meet. And in Masters, there is no single “top seed:” each age group has its own.

I believe that Masters meets should be seeded in a simple manner-almost boneheaded in its simplicity: The entries in an event should be arranged by time, then assigned to heats and lanes in groups of six (or eight, or however many lanes there are in the pool), simply spread across the pool from fast to slow. In a meet seeded this way, each swimmer would swim between the swimmers just faster and just slower than himself (or next to those with identical seed times). Obviously, as now, someone would have to swim in the wall lanes. There's no totally equitable way to approach that problem, but meet directors could look for natural gaps in the seed times and break the heats up accordingly.

In my experience, this issue meets with a lot of resistance and misunderstanding when it is first presented to swimmers. I've seen this in personal discussion and on the USMS website Discussion Forum. Unfortunately, I have also been met with a stone wall in trying to get the issue raised in SWIM Magazine (where it belongs) over the past year or so. However, I think it will make sense after a little reflection, and it is an important issue because of the impact it has on our experiences at meets. I urge swimmers to work through their representatives to get this policy changed, or at least make the alternate method optional. Also, I suggest discussion of the issue on the USMS Discussion Forum.

Copyright December 1999, Henry Mecredy. All rights reserved

The views expressed here are strictly my own.

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