USA Swimming Classic Superstitions

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every race had to be the same: Right leg on the block, stretch. Left leg on the block, stretch.


I don’t know why I had to do this pre-race routine before every single competition for ten years of my life. It was an obsession. A compulsion. A need. If I didn’t do this exact stretch routine in the seconds before stepping onto the blocks, I was certain that terrible things would happen. I would be DQ’d. Or injured. Or fire and brimstone would hail down from the skies. Something terrible would occur without those two leg stretches, I’m sure, so I didn’t chance fate:

Right leg on the block, left leg on the block.

Swimmers are superstitious folk. You see it at every swim meet behind the blocks: A plethora of arm-swings, stretches, cap fix routines, pool face splashes, and breathing exercises. Swimmers stand behind the blocks, likely doing the same pre-race routine they did when they had neon green goggles and swam the 25 breaststroke.

Superstitions are carried with you like emotional baggage, from one race to the next, both giving you a feeling of calm and yet also a feeling of profound anxiety. What if I don’t do that certain pre-race routine? What would happen? For me, my obsessive compulsion wasn't even out of a need. It was more out of fear. If I didn’t do a specific ritual before a race, I was definitely setting myself up for the worst race of my life, failure, and permanent and infinite sadness. Even Michael Phelps has the same pre-race ritual, a patented series of two back slaps and a loud on-the-blocks cough just before the race start.

Here are 10 of the Classic Swimmer Superstitions:

1. The Pre-Race Face & Body Splash

What better way to prepare for swimming in water than furiously dousing yourself with a bucket of pool water through a series of flailing arm splashes? I’ve never understood this routine, because I like being warm, and pool water is cold. But many swimmers love to splash themselves before races. I just stand far away from those swimmers.

2. The Behind-The-Block Jump/Arm Circle/Stretch

This is a popular one. Swim blocks are like magic portals escorting you into a land of cool blue magic, and to enter this Cool Blue Magic Land, you must go through a series of arm circles. Seems insane, right? Could you imagine feeling compelled to do the same amount of jumps behind your desk every time you did a school paper? And yet, this is one of the most popular swimmer superstitions out there.

3. The Carbo-Loading Pre-Meet Dinner.

This one is more about nutrition than anything else, less abnormal and more rooted in logic and science. But some swimmers out there begin to sweat if they haven’t had their standard 6,000 calorie pasta dinner before the big meet. At away meets, they internally freak out without their standard pasta-and-meat-sauce pre-meet dinner. Or on race day, many swimmers eat the same thing, morning after morning, meet after meet. And hey, if it works, it works.

4. The Chest/Leg/Arm Slap.

What better way to celebrate the commencement of a painful swim race by inflicting upon yourself even more pain? I’ve heard body slaps evoke tiny amounts of endorphins, but personally, I think it’s also a little Fear Factor. If I ever raced Cesar Cielo, turned to face him before diving in, and saw him looking like he had just been in a fight with huge red marks all over his chest and body, I’d cry a little.

5. The “Feel of the Water” Thing on Race Day

So many swimmers judge how their race will go based on how they feel in warm-up. How their “feel” of the water is. Which is sort of like writing off the next race because the last one was bad. Every race is its own beast, every length a different adventure, each competition unpredictable and chaotic on its own. I’ve swam great while feeling bad during warm up, and I’ve swam poorly after feeling awesome during warm-up. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, warm-ups don’t win races. Races win races.

6. Taper Is A Mysterious Magical Process That Fixes An Entire Season

Speaking of superstitions, is there any bigger superstition than the magical process otherwise known as “taper”? Some people imagine taper to be like duct tape, able to fix any woes. There’s a cliché saying in movie production when something on-set is messed up, “We’ll fix it in post.” An actor messes up, or a cloud hovers and ruins a great outdoors shot, someone inevitably just mutters, “Meh, we’ll fix it in post!” Meaning, fix it in post-production. Taper is sort of like post-production, but it cannot fix everything. Those first 8 months of the season aren’t meaningless. Taper is important, but not more important than the entire season that preceded it.

7. Lane Placement

There’s some science behind advantages being in the middle lane, but some swimmers prefer the outside lane. Or Lane 3. Or Lane 7. Every swimmer has that “lucky lane” where they once had that awesome 100 backstroke when they were 13. I knew that if I was in Lane 2, I would have a good race. Something about that lane. That number. (I’m weird.)

8. Lucky Goggles.

I had practice goggles, which were old, crusty, beat-up goggles that fogged within the first 5 yards of practice. Then I had my “lucky goggles” which were holy, magical, and mysterious. I saved them in my locker and only unveiled them for the biggest of races. Once you have a good race with a pair of goggles, they become your “lucky goggles.”

9. Shaving Will Morph You Into A Swimming Superstar.

Shaving down certainly reduces drag and brings forward skin cells, allowing your body to “feel” faster in the water. But shaving doesn’t turn you into a new swimmer. Shaving down is more mental than anything. Swimmers revere this shave-down process as though it were a religious experience. And I guess when you’ve waited an entire season to shave down, it is.

10. Fast Pools & Slow Pools.

Swimmers are the only people in the world who will refer to a pool as being “fast” or “slow.” Unless you’re swimming in 2 feet of water or some mysterious current is blasting against you and only you, a pool is a pool, a lane is a lane, and all competitors are literally in the same competition arena. Some swimmers judge pools based on previous best performances. Like me, I loved the University of Minnesota’s pool. There is no logical reason. In high school, I loved Northview’s pool. Always swam fast there. I think I liked the red flags. Or the way the pool smelled. Or how it felt. It had nothing to do with anything, and yet, whenever I walked in those pools, I knew I’d swim fast.