The AAAAs, BBs, and QTs of Swimming

Swimmers of all ages have a diverse range of goals for their sport. These goals might be to learn how to swim a certain stroke or to make a certain time in an event by the end of the season. No matter what your goals are, swimming is excellent exercise and most swimmers see their lane buddies as part of their extended family. Here’s a primer on the alphabet soup of swimming, and how all these time standards work together and where to find them.

Swimmers enter new events with NT as their entry time. NT = no time. This just means you haven’t swam the event previously with a legal time. What’s a legal time? That’s when you finish without a DQ, for disqualification. DQs are made by officials who observe swimmers for any violations of the rules of swimming, and this is how kids learn to swim correctly. Coaches use these DQs to teach correct strokes. You can read the rules of swimming in the USA Swimming rule book.

Swimming often uses qualification times, or QTs, for meet entry. Some meets are unclassified or open, which means that you don’t need any specific entry time to enter an event. When meets are open, you can enter with NT or any entry time. Sometimes coaches will estimate times so kids can compete against other swimmers who finish events in the same approximate time. Competing against other athletes who swim at the same pace is done through seeding, where swimmers are added to heats based on their entry times, with the fastest swimmers in each heat seeded in the middle lanes.

You can go to the USA Swimming times search page to see all of your swims, and use date filters and other settings to show only your best times. USA Swimming releases  national age group motivational time standards for dual-year age groups every four years. Time standards by age are classified as 10 & under, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, and 17-18, for girls and boys, in all swimming courses. The “course” refers to pool size—short course yards is a 25-yard pool (Lakeway and Steiner Ranch), short course meters is a 25-meter pool (Lost Creek CC, Twin Creeks CC, and Milburn), and long course meters is a 50-meter pool (Northwest Pool, UT). These time standards can be used so you know how you are doing when compared to other swimmers your age.

So what’s the progression?

“Slower than B” just means that you aren’t ranked nationally yet. Some people call these “C” times. “C” meets are for swimmers who are new to the sport and still learning.

“B” is the first national time standard for age group swimmers (ages 18 and younger) and “AAAA” is the top national time standard for age group swimmers. The progression as swimmers get faster is B, BB, A, AA, AAA, and then AAAA. An “AA” time is faster than an “A” time, and so on.

Times based on national age group motivational time standards really just tell you how you rank against other swimmers in that event. For example, if you have an AAA time for your age and gender in an event, you are faster than most of the other kids in the U.S. for your age group and gender who are swimming that event.

We also use time standards for entry into a meet. Some meet hosts might put time standards on events to manage the meet’s timeline. For example, Longhorn Aquatics requires B times for some distance events so swimmers need to finish the event faster than a certain time. This requirement helps to restrict entry and control the meet timeline so that more swimmers can be allowed into the meet. By using time standards, the meet host can estimate and control the timeline more accurately.

In addition to national age group motivational time standards, swimming uses other time standards for swimmers to gain entry into higher-level meets. Sometimes these times are called “cuts.” When a meet uses cuts to restrict meet entry, they are always published with the meet information. Swimmers should talk with their coaches to understand which meets they can attend and train for. Championship meets for swimmers during the long course season (late April to mid-August), progressing from slowest to fastest, in terms of entry times are as follows:

South Texas Swimming Junior STAGS: Qualifying times for all events are BB and slower times for your age group and gender, but NT entries are not allowed. Times can be used in yards or meters. This is the entry-level age group (18 and younger) championship meet in South Texas Swimming. Kids going to this meet are sometimes new to swimming or are very close to earning STAGS times for their events.

South Texas Age Group Championship (STAGS): This is the top age group (18 and younger) championship meet in South Texas Swimming. The qualifying time for all events is a STAGS time or faster for your age group and gender in yard or meters.

Texas Age Group Championship (TAGS): This is the top championship meet for age group swimming (14 and younger) in the state of Texas. Texas is considered to have the fastest state age group championship in the country. The TAGS cuts are very fast and earning one puts you in an elite group of swimmers in your age group, not only in Texas, but in the U.S.

Sectionals: This is the first national meet. The U.S. is divided into swimming sections. Sectionals is the championship for each region in a section. LCA is in the Southern zone, and the Sectionals meet LCA attends includes swimmers from Texas and Louisiana. To compete at Sectionals, you need to earn the Sectionals cut or faster. Sectionals also uses “bonus” cuts to allow athletes with at least one Sectionals cut to enter the meet and swim one or two bonus events at the meet when they also have the minimum bonus time standard. You can’t enter Sectionals without at least one Sectionals cut. Some people call this a “hard cut.” To give you a better idea of how fast the TAGS meet is, some TAGS time standards are as fast as Sectionals bonus cuts or faster than Sectionals hard cuts, especially for girls.

Futures: This is the second national meet. Futures uses four entry zones and LCA competes in the Central zone. This year the Futures meet is in Rochester, MN but this meet might be hosted anywhere in the zone. Futures cuts are faster than Sectionals cuts. The Futures meet doesn’t have bonus cuts, so you must have the Futures cut to enter events at this meet.

Junior Nationals (also called “Juniors”): This is the third national meet for age group swimming (ages 18 and younger). Juniors is a very fast meet, held this summer in Irvine, CA. You must have the Juniors cut to enter events at this meet.

Nationals (also called “Senior Nationals” or “Seniors”): This is the top national championship meet in the U.S. and has no age restrictions. In Olympic years, the Nationals meet is not held during the summer season; it is replaced by the Olympic Trials. You must have the National cut to enter events at this meet. Athletes ages 18 & younger can swim bonus events at this meet only if they have at least one National cut and the 18 & under bonus time standard. Nationals will be held in Irvine, CA this summer.

Olympic Trials: Held once every four years, this meet is held to select athletes for the U.S. Olympic team. The top two finishers in each event are added to the U.S. Olympic team. Athletes must have an Olympic Trials cut to enter events at this meet and there are no bonus events. Entry times for this meet, unlike other meets, are accepted only in long course meters times. The Olympic Trials cuts for the 2020 Olympics have not yet been released.