What Is Competitive Swimming? Levels & Organizations Explained

Competitive swimming involves skilled swimmers racing for fastest times in various strokes and distances, with opportunities at multiple levels and age groups, leading to high-level events like the Summer Olympics.

what is competitive swimming

Swimming is one of the most popular sports in the world because it is simple, inexpensive, and great for the body. Perhaps that’s why competitive swimming has seen a jump in activity in recent years.

More and more people, particularly younger kids, are jumping into this sport with gusto. So, what exactly is competitive swimming?

Let’s take a deep look at the subject to give you a better understanding of what this sport entails and whether it is right for your competitive interests.

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What is Considered Competitive Swimming?

Competitive swimming is a sport where skilled swimmers race each other for the fastest times in specific swim lengths. These lengths vary depending on the competition and the participant’s age level and may include multiple pool lengths.

Competitive swimmers typically use one or more stroke types during a competition, such as a backstroke or the butterfly stroke, while they swim.

Competitive swimming can take place at multiple levels and include various age groups. For example, competitions between high schools may include junior varsity and varsity teams from multiple schools.

Meets typically include multiple groups, such as teams from several schools in a state. They may last for several hours, as well, giving swimmers the chance to enjoy multiple events.

High-level competitive swimming may include multiple state-based or even national teams competing against each other. The most prominent competitive swimming events likely occur during the Summer Olympics.

Here, the top swimmers from around the world compete to showcase their skills. Other high-level events include national and international championship events.

What is the Purpose of Competitive Swimming?

Competitive swimming’s purpose is the same as that of other sports: to showcase a competitor’s athletic skills and win events. A typical swimming event includes multiple competitions in which swimmers can earn points based on their placing in a meet.

This means that players can win multiple swims and help their team win the overall competition. Individual swimmers may also compete to rise in the ranks and potentially join their country’s Olympic team. 

For ambitious competitive swimmers, Olympic-level competition is the ultimate achievement. Very few people ever reach this level, and few competitive swimmers become professionals.

Some may have semi-professional careers, where they swim when not working, or even teach swimming at pools or other training facilities.

Some may earn sponsorships that help pay for things like entry fees and memberships to swimming clubs in their area. 

How Do You Play Competitive Swimming?

Competitive swimming events typically require swimmers to wear a skin-tight bathing suit and bathing cap to streamline their bodies and improve their swimming speed.

Swimmers compete by lining up in various lanes across a large swimming pool. They must stay within their lane as they swim and avoid touching other competitors.

Once an event begins, they swim as fast as they can down their lane.

Once swimmers reach the other end, they must quickly turn around against the wall and push off to gain a speed boost. Depending on the event, swimmers may cross the pool multiple times without a break.

Speed is critical in competitive swimming, as are stamina and strength. Competitors who lack good stamina will find themselves lagging behind and struggling to progress in the sport.

Swimmers typically get breaks between events when competing in multiple types, giving them time to rest and build their stamina.

However, they are not allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs or other substances that may give them an unfair advantage. These can include illegal stimulants like methamphetamine, which may increase a player’s stamina temporarily.

Swimmers caught with these drugs may be banned from future events or stripped of wins.

What Age is Good for Competitive Swimming?

Just about anybody can try competitive swimming, but it is typically better to start younger. Many swimmers begin at eight years old to build the natural strength, stamina, and skill to compete.

Starting young also helps players streamline their form, which is important for success in this sport.

That said, it is possible for 11 and 12-year-olds to start competitive swimming and become strong swimmers.

High-level competition is usually more common in swimmers between the 20-30 years age group. Swimmers often peak in their mid-20s and start to slow down as they get into their early to mid-30s.

However, some competitive swimmers stay strong for multiple Olympics. For example, Michael Phelps remained the top swimmer for many years despite increasing age.

As long as competitors focus on staying strong and capable, they may successfully swim at many levels.

If you are interested in competitive swimming and are already an adult, your chances of Olympic success may be limited. However, you may find local clubs where you can compete for fun and pleasure.

Competitive swimming doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on achieving Olympic success.

You can get whatever you want out of this sport, meaning that you can simply swim for the love it and still have an enjoyable time at various swimming events.

Which Levels of Competitive Swimming Are Available?

Competitive swimming levels may vary based on the country in which you compete. For example, the United States of America has these competitive levels:

Speedo Sectionals

These events have no age brackets and occur across several states throughout the nation, requiring meeting a qualifying time to compete. Learn more.


These larger-scale events give swimmers the chance to compete in higher-level meets and include faster qualification times than Speedo sectionals. Learn more.

Speedo Junior National Championship

This international-level event requires swimmers to be at least 18 years or younger on the first day of competition. Learn more.

US Open (or Senior Nationals)

As an international-level event, this competition focuses heavily on over 18 swimmers, though Olympic, National, and Junior National competitors may swim. Learn more.

Philips 66 National Championships

Similar to the US Open event, this meet requires faster qualification times and is considered the next level above it. Learn more.

Olympic Trials

Anyone trying to join the Olympic team needs to compete in this event: out of 400,000 registered swimmers, only 1,250 compete at this event with only 0.3% qualifying for the Olympic team. Learn more.

US Olympic Team

The top two qualifiers at the trials join the Olympics team and compete in the next Olympics. This is the highest level of competitive swimming internationally. Learn more.

The United Kingdom has different competitive levels, from open meets (which just about anyone can join) to licensed meets.

Licensed meets occur at four levels, including long- and short-course events. These include competition in 50-meter pools (for long course events) and 25-meter pools (for short course events).

What are Some Competitive Swimming Organizations?

Competitive swimming organizations include many groups that vary depending on your country or location. Just a few of these groups include:

  • American Swimming Coaches Association
  • Asia Swimming Federation
  • The Bahamas Aquatics Federation
  • Brazilian Confederation of Aquatic Sports
  • British Swimming
  • British Swimming Coaches Association
  • Central American and Caribbean Swimming Federation
  • French Swimming Federation
  • Swimming Federation of India
  • Institute of Swimming
  • International Winter Swimming Association
  • Masters Swimming Canada
  • Metropolitan Swimming
  • National Swimming Pool Foundation
  • The Race Club
  • Royal Belgian Swimming Federation
  • Swimming Union of the Americas
  • USA Swimming
  • The Woodlands Swim Team

National and state organizations typically take only residents of their specific region, though there may be some qualifications that help others join these groups.

For example, people with part-time residency in a state or nation may qualify, depending on the organization.

More FAQs

What is the meaning of competitive swimming?

The meaning of competitive swimming is participating in races with other swimmers while demonstrating the highest level of stroke ability, speed, and performance. The four main strokes in competitive swimming include freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly.

How many levels of swimming are there?

There are six levels in the Lifesaving Society’s Swimmer program, which is designed to ensure that children aged 5 and above, including beginners and those looking to improve their skills, learn how to swim before encountering more challenging situations.

Which swimming stroke is the hardest?

The hardest swimming stroke to learn is the butterfly. Before being able to match the speeds of other strokes, it requires significant strength. Additionally, it is known for its high calorie-burning rate of approximately 820 calories per hour.

How many strokes are there in competitive swimming?

There are four competitive swimming strokes, which include freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. The combination of these four strokes is known as the individual medley. Additionally, in freestyle events, competitors have the freedom to swim any stroke they prefer.

Can I start competitive swimming at 16?

Statement: Starting competitive swimming at 16 is possible.Rewritten answer: Although you can begin competitive swimming at any age, it is important to note that your career in swimming typically reaches its peak around the age of 20. On the positive side, starting swimming at a young age can be beneficial for developing skills and boosting self-assurance.

How many types of swimming styles are there?

There are six primary swimming styles, namely Freestyle, Front Crawl, Backstroke, Breaststroke, Butterfly stroke, and Sidestroke. These strokes are commonly used by Olympians and offer numerous benefits to the human body. While it is possible to transition between strokes, mastering each one necessitates dedication and practice.

What is competitive swimming season?

The competitive swimming season refers to the period of time in university competition when swimmers participate in meets and championships. It typically starts in late September or early October and runs until April. During this season, teams have their first dual meet and then progress to conference championships in February, followed by the NCAA Championships in late March or early April.

Why do people swim competitively?

People swim competitively because it allows them to enhance their stamina and endurance, leading to improved cardiovascular health. Additionally, swimming is a sport that can be pursued throughout one’s lifetime, making it unique in its ability to be done competitively as individuals age.

Is competitive swimming good for girls?

Competitive swimming is beneficial for girls as it helps maintain an elevated heart rate, reduces body stress, and enhances endurance, muscle strength, and cardiovascular fitness.

How many times a week should a competitive swimmer swim?

A competitive swimmer should swim several times a week to maintain their training routine. On average, most swimmers have morning practice sessions around 4-8 times per week. Typically, a swimmer’s day begins before sunrise, with high school swimmers starting their practice around 5 am, while collegiate and professional swimmers enjoy the flexibility of starting at 6 am or 7 am.

Does competitive swimming build muscle?

Competitive swimming does build muscle, as stated by physiotherapist Tracy Ward from Freshly Centered. She explains that swimming, being an exercise against water resistance, effectively builds muscle like any form of exercise against external resistance.

Where is competitive swimming most popular?

Competitive swimming is most popular in the United States, with a top position of 23.82%. Following closely behind is Australia at 14.73%, then Great Britain at 8.44%, and China at 8.1%.

Why do swimmers go to the gym?

Swimmers go to the gym because weight lifting allows them to strengthen muscles that are difficult to target in the water. By increasing their strength through gym workouts, swimmers can improve their ability to pull more water, push off walls with greater speed, and achieve longer distances in their swimming endeavors.

Can you start competitive swimming at 15?

Starting competitive swimming at 15 is absolutely possible. Competitive swimming offers numerous benefits, such as enhancing coordination, stamina, and strength in your body. Regardless of your age, as long as you are in good physical condition and committed to consistent training, you can begin competing in swimming.

Can you start competitive swimming at 17?

Starting competitive swimming at 17 is possible, but it is important to note that the peak of a swimming career is typically around the age of 20. While swimming can provide valuable skill-building and confidence-building opportunities for individuals at a young age, it is also important to consider if someone is physically prepared to compete at a high level. If someone starts swimming competitively later in life, they may not achieve the optimal outcome compared to those who started at a younger age.

How many people swim competitively?

The number of people who swim competitively can be estimated by looking at swimming participation in the United States from 2011 to 2021. In 2021, approximately 2.8 million individuals swam on a team, while over 28.4 million people went swimming at least once for fitness purposes. It is worth noting that in 2019, the sport attracted participation from more than 31 million Americans.

Can you start swimming at 13?

Starting swimming at 13 years old may be considered late for competitive swimming, according to most experts. It is generally believed that beginning swimming at a younger age can result in improved technique and faster swimming times. However, it is crucial to avoid overtraining or pushing oneself too hard beyond their capabilities.

Is swimming a hobby or a sport?

Swimming is both a hobby and a sport. It offers a unique experience that allows you to discover more about yourself as you engage in the activity over the years. The sport not only imparts valuable life lessons, but even after retiring from competitive swimming, there is still ample opportunity to further explore and reflect upon the intricacies of swimming.

At what age do female swimmers peak?

Female swimmers typically reach their peak performance between the ages of 21 and 26, according to research. The duration of this peak performance period is limited, averaging around 2.6 ± 1.5 years. Therefore, in order to achieve top-elite performance at the right time and not miss their opportunity, swimmers may need to start training early.

What’s the hardest sport to go pro in?

The hardest sport to go pro in is basketball, soccer, football, baseball, and ice hockey. If you have a passion for gracefully skating on ice and the exhilaration of colliding with other players, you may consider pursuing a career in hockey.

What is the most demanding sport?

The most demanding sport, according to various studies on the science of muscles and movement, is boxing. Experts classify boxing as the sport that requires the highest level of athleticism due to its demands for strength, power, endurance, and the capacity to endure significant blows over an extended duration.

What is the hardest Olympic sport to qualify for?

The hardest Olympic sport to qualify for is the decathlon, which is widely regarded as a challenging discipline. The marathon, boxing, water polo, and rowing are also considered to be tough sports to qualify for in the Olympics. Additionally, event management plays a crucial role in ensuring the successful execution of these demanding sports.

What sport has the strongest athletes?

The sport with the strongest athletes is weightlifting, which has a rating of 86.7. Gymnastics follows closely behind with a rating of 84.4, while water polo ranks third with a rating of 82.5. Wrestling rounds out the top four with a rating of 81.4.

Which is the hardest swimming style?

The hardest swimming style is the butterfly stroke. Mastering this stroke requires significant strength and it takes time to reach the same speeds as the other strokes. Additionally, it is an excellent calorie-burning exercise, with an estimated rate of around 820 calories burned per hour.

Do competitive swimmers go to the gym?

Competitive swimmers do go to the gym as part of their training routine.

Can competitive swimmers be short?

Competitive swimmers can indeed be short. However, being shorter may require them to put in extra effort, focus on improving technique, and pay close attention to various factors that impact performance. These aspects are within their control and can help them compete effectively against taller opponents.

How many laps do competitive swimmers do?

Competitive swimmers typically do a certain number of laps depending on the pool size. For instance, in Olympic-size pools that are 50 meters in length, it would take 30 laps to cover a distance of 1,500 meters or 0.93 miles. This particular event is the longest in Olympic swimming that is not held in open water. However, if you are swimming in a local pool with a length of 25 yards, you would need to complete 66 laps to cover the same distance.

How do I prepare my child for competitive swimming?

To prepare your child for competitive swimming, it is crucial to start by enrolling them in swimming lessons. This is the first and most important step towards becoming a competitive swimmer. Additionally, it is essential to emphasize the importance of practice. Repetition plays a key role in learning and mastering swimming skills. Encourage your child to keep swimming and consider joining a swim force team to further enhance their abilities. It is also beneficial to incorporate training outside of the pool to improve overall fitness. Lastly, remember to prioritize enjoyment and fun throughout the entire process.

Can I start competitive swimming at 13?

You can start competitive swimming at 13, although most swimmers typically begin their competitive phase between the ages of eight and 12 years old. The possibility of competing at a young age depends on the opportunities available in your area and whether you possess the other necessary qualities.

Is it too late to start competitive swimming at 20?

It is not too late to start competitive swimming at 20. You can begin swimming at any age, and there are swim clubs available for individuals of all ages. Engaging in competitive swimming can be an excellent means to enhance your fitness and endurance. Expensive gear is not necessary to commence swimming.

What is fastest swimming stroke?

The fastest swimming stroke is the front crawl, also known as the freestyle stroke. Competitive swimmers predominantly use this stroke due to its speed. Its swiftness is attributed to the continuous underwater pulling motion of one arm, which generates a strong propulsion.

What do you do in swimming competitions?

In swimming competitions, participants engage in a range of events including butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and individual medley. These events involve different distances and are highly popular in the Olympics. Additionally, teams of four swimmers can participate in either freestyle or medley relays.

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