As I assume it is with all sports, swimming in America runs a lot differently to the way it does in Australia. I also assume that this difference is uniquely American, and as such will be different for a lot of other countries around the world. In this post, I'm going to explain how swimming works in America (or at least at Oberlin), and compare this to the way things worked for me back home.
Oberlin College is a Division 3 school in the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC), under the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In America, for those not familiar, sports are generally played for a school. In high school, you compete for your school in season and some swimmers compete for a club team out of season. Once you reach college, however, the club teams tend to disappear and you swim only for your college and sometimes people will train with their old club team when they go home for the summer.
This is one of the major differences between America and Australia. In Australia, swimming is always for a club team, and you represent your school maybe once or twice a year, but never really train with the school team or have a coach. Club meets are not one team against another (like in the states), but a whole bunch of teams coming together to race. Coaches also have little to no control over the events or meets their swimmers compete in. So for me coming to America, I was very confused by the control my coach had over my events. The first meet I swam for Oberlin, my coach entered me into the 400 IM and I nearly fell over from shock. I had never swum the event before and was not excited for the prospect. Honestly, I like the idea of having control of my events, but I do like having the team all swim together at one meet, as it really creates a team energy, unlike anything I have experienced back home.
In America, meets are generally team vs team. You have a conference (which for me is NCAC) and you race against teams in your conference and outside of it. You collect a bunch of wins and losses (of which Oberlin has more losses than wins currently), and at the end of the season, you have a big conference meet, where all the teams in the conference come together at one team's pool (for us that is generally Denison) and race really fast. Whereas, in Australia, meets are generally hosted by one team as a fundraising thing, and individuals enter the meet rather than teams going against each other. Our big season-ending meet is state or national championships, and you only go if you qualify.
One of my favourite memories of a meet here in the US was actually in that 400 IM, I was exhausted and in the Breaststroke leg. My asthma was really bad and I was struggling to breathe but as I got closer to the far wall on the first length of Breaststroke I could see my teammates standing at the end of my lane screaming at me to go faster. I could feel the energy in the air, and that helped me to push myself to go faster. This would never happen at a meet in Australia, as swimmers aren't really allowed to be on deck if they aren't swimming and because meets don't happen team vs team, I would have at most five teammates at a meet with me. Having this support from my new teammates definitely helped to push me to go faster, and I very much like the environment at meets here in America.
Another difference that confused me greatly, and honestly still trips me up sometimes, is America's patriotism. At every single swim meet that I have competed for Oberlin, they play the national anthem before the beginning of the meet. But it's not really announced, it's just played before the first event (which is usually a relay event). I'm also usually in said relay, and so I'm standing there getting ready and the national anthem begins to play and I have to jump up and try and find the American flag hanging on the wall. I don't think there has ever been a meet where I haven't been surprised by the first few bars of the Star Spangled Banner. I'm hoping by the time conferences rolls around I will no longer be caught off guard.
By far the most painful difference for me is the change of direction in the pool. In Australia, we swim on the right side of the lane. In America, they do everything anti-clockwise. Meaning they swim the other way around the lane, they drive on the other side of the road, and they walk on the other side of the sidewalk. I cannot count the number of times I have swum into the lane line at swim practice or nearly walked into someone because I wasn't paying attention when I was walking somewhere. I had bruises on my right elbow for a month when I first got here and 3 months later I am still occasionally swimming into the lane line.
Another difference between American and Australian swimming that both makes sense and confuses me, is the emphasis on championships. In Australia, you are constantly trying to make cut times for state or national championships, and so it is important to swim fast every weekend. Meaning you put on a racing suit for every meet, and, in general, practices become lighter towards the end of the week. But because not everyone is swimming meets every weekend (because we don't race as a team) the coach has to work out who is swimming and adjust the sets for them as needed. Or at least that is how my club team worked. In America, you're not trying to make championship cut times every weekend, and as a result, you don't put on a racing suit for meets except for conferences and likely one midseason invite meet. Your training also doesn’t decrease for meets, which means you go into meets tired, but your body comes out stronger for it.
One of my favourite things about college swimming is something that is uniquely collegiate. At college, teams have their own sports trainer to help with stretching out, giving them rehab exercises and just general loosening out. They also have ice baths and warm water whirlpools for when you need those too. These trainers are generally shared by a few teams at the college, but the idea of having a dedicated person on campus who can help me with any swim related ache is really nice. This is not something that exists in Australia, and most high school teams here in the states also don’t have this resource, so I really do count myself lucky to have Jill to help me. And as a person who is constantly injured (going the other way around the lane has lead to many scraped elbows at meets that need cleaning by other team’s trainers), I can definitely say with confidence that the Oberlin training staff are amazing and are always able to help me when I need it.
I really enjoy being a collegiate athlete and although the differences exist and it took me a while to wrap my head around things, I like the resources I have available to me. I love my team with all my heart and I appreciate their support every time I swim. We are always there for each other and they are my second family on the other side of the world. I could not have a better family to have stepped in to.
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