The Swimming Basics:

Welcome to the world of competitive swimming, a fantastic sport and great experience for anyone.  Still, we recognize that many aspects of our sport are difficult for newcomers to understand.  Hopefully this page will help answer any questions you may have. 

United States Swimming:

United States Swimming is the national governing body for the sport of swimming.  All participants of WEST Express must be members of this organization. Membership is renewed in the fall of each year.  Membership provides limited, co-benefit accident and liability insurance for swimmers participating in supervised workouts and swim meets. 

Minnesota Swimming:

Minnesota Swimming is the Local Swim Committee (LSC), or administrative division, that handles our geographic area which includes all of Minnesota, and a few select counties in Western Wisconsin.  MSI grants annual charters to clubs like WEST Express, making them a part of the USA Swimming family.  MSI also administers all USA Swimming sanctioned meets that take place within their jurisdiction. 


The competitive swimming year is sectioned off into two separate competitive seasons, each with their own set of championship meets.  The first season starts in early September and runs through March.  This season is typically referred to as the Short Course Season because all competitions during this time, with the exception of the Spring National Championship Meet, take place in a 25 yard, or "Short Course" pool. 


The second competitive season runs from early April through early August, and is usually referred to as the Long Course Season due to the fact that meets in this season are (whenever possible) held in 50 meter, or "Long Course" pools.  The Long Course format is used for all USA Swimming Senior National Meets, as well as most major international meets such as the World Championships and the Olympics.

Because USA Swimming uses two separate formats (Long Course vs. Short Course) throughout the year, swimmers who swim year-round will have two different sets of best times, just as the club has two different sets of club records.  Swimmers, coaches and parents will often try and "convert" times so that races and times in different formats can be compared, and there are several tools for sale at meets that will help with conversions, but parents should be aware that Long Course / Short Course conversions are rarely accurate.  Instead, it is more helpful to view each season, and the times achieved in the season, separately.

The 4 Competitive Strokes:

One of the many things that makes swimming such a unique sport is the fact that swimmers compete in a variety of different strokes.  Races are swum at various distances (depending on the age group) in each of the following strokes: Backstroke, Breaststroke, Butterfly and Freestyle, as well as in an Individual Medley in which each swimmer competes a specified distance of each of the strokes.  Relays are also done in which one swimmer from each team swims each of the 4 strokes.  These 4 strokes are the only ones competed in USA Swimming meets.  More information on each of the strokes is included below.


This stroke is easily identifiable as it is the only one done on the back.  It is done using an alternating arm motion combined with a flutter kick and good hip, shoulder and trunk rotation.  Backstroker's may flip onto their stomach to change direction at the walls, but it must be done in a continuous motion, with no more than one stroke permitted on the stomach.  Race finishes must be done on the back.


Breaststroke is done using a two-arm simultaneous stroke and underwater recovery along with a strong "whip kick" which is sometimes called the frog kick.  Balance in the breaststroke is attained through a "teeter-totter" motion in the water, which has swimmers alternating putting pressure on the upper and lower body, rotating over the short axis.  Usually considered the slowest of the 4 strokes, Breaststroke is also one of the most difficult strokes to do correctly. 


Butterfly is done using a two-arm simultaneous stroke with an above water recovery along with a "dolphin kick".  Using the same "teeter-totter" motion as the breaststroke, butterfliers appear to move through the water with an undular, or wave-like motion.  Rhythm, timing and strength are the most important factors in a fast butterfly.


In all freestyle events, swimmers may use whatever stroke they would like to get from one end of the pool to the other.  Typically, however, swimmers will use the front crawl during freestyle events, as it is the fastest.  Because of this, coaches, swimmers and parents often use the word "freestyle" in exchange for "front crawl". 


Here at WEST Express, we believe that competitions are an important step in the progression each swimmer goes through as a swimmer, so we therefore encourage all eligible members to take part in the meets our club attends.  At this point, however, none of our competitions are required. 

At all MSI meets, the events in which swimmers compete are determined based on the age of the swimmer.  Each age group has their own set of events chosen to ensure that swimmers compete in a wide variety of events without requiring any athlete to swim an event he or she is unable to do (e.g. an 8 year old will not compete in the 200 fly).  Each age group also has it’s own set of time standards designed to provide a set progression of improvement relative to the group’s age and physical maturity, while also ensuring that swimmers always compete against other swimmers of like ability.  The USA Swimming designated age groups are 8 & Under, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, and Senior. 

At almost all meets we attend, swimmers compete only against swimmers of the same gender and in the same age group, and seeding is done by time, which means your swimmer will always compete in a heat of swimmers of roughly the same ability level.  



Types of Meets:

USA Swimming Meets come in a variety of different formats, from Novice all the way through Junior and Senior National Championships.  All of these formats, however, are determined based on time standards, which indicate the minimum (and sometimes maximum) achievements under which a swimmer may compete in a designated meet.  All MSI meets use the Minnesota Swimming Time Standards, while regional or national meets typically use standards based off of the USA Swimming Time Standards. 

Minnesota Swimming classifies their time standards into 5 groups: Bronze, Silver, Gold, CH, and ZONE.  These levels represent a progression upward (i.e. Silver times are faster than Bronze times), and usually indicate the type of meet a swimmer may compete in.   

Below is a brief description of all the types of meets you will likely encounter as a swim parent.

Bronze Meets are for swimmers who have previously not swum an event (“No Time”) or have a “bronze” qualifying time or slower “Pre-bronze” time. These meets are great for novice swimmers and first meet experiences. Bronze Meets are also a good opportunity for more experienced athletes to attempt longer events for the first time, such as the 200 Fly, 500 Free, or 400 IM. 

Gold, Silver and Bronze Meets are for all swimmers, and all members are encouraged to participate. Because these meets involve multiple ability levels, awards categories individual events are divided into three levels: “Bronze” and slower, “Silver,” and "Gold” and faster.


Silver/Bronze Meets provide an intermediate level of competition for swimmers with “Silver” times, “Bronze” times and “No Times.” 

Gold Meets are for experienced swimmers who have attained Minnesota “Gold” times and faster. Team scores are kept and team awards are given.

State Meets are open to qualifiers with a “CH” (Champ) time or faster. The team state champion is determined at these meets. The Minnesota Swimming Championship for winter short course season is held each March in Rochester. The State Championship for summer long course season is held each August at the University of Minnesota.

Zone Meets are annual regional championships, held each August by USA Swimming, which is divided into four zones. Athletes qualify by achieving a “Zone” time, which is the National Age Group “AAA” standard. This is an all-star type of competition in which WEST Express swimmers represent a conglomerate Team Minnesota. It is sometimes held in Minnesota but often is hosted elsewhere. Other teams in our zone include Wisconsin, Iowa, Midwestern, Missouri Valley, Ohio, Michigan, Lake Erie, Illinois, and Indiana.

Speedo Sectional Meets are faster than Zones but not quite as fast as Junior Nationals. There are no age groups and time standards are difficult to achieve. This meet is held in a Midwestern location. 

Junior Nationals, held every March and August after State, is the national championship meet for USA Swimming athletes ages 18 and under. This elite meet with very fast qualification times brings the fastest young swimmers throughout America together to compete.

US Nationals, held twice a year, is the top annual championship meet in America. Qualification times for this elite senior meet are faster than for the US Open. America’s fastest swimmers, including world-class athletes such as Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker, and Natalie Coughlin, participate.

The best swimmers from the United States (and the entire world) compete at Junior Nationals and Nationals.

Olympic Trials are held every four years to select swimmers for the Olympic Games. This elite senior selection meet has qualification times faster than US Nationals. The top two swimmers in each individual event, plus a few additional freestyler's, are selected for the US Olympic Team. 

International Meets, such as the Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup, Pan Pacific Games, etc., require selection by USA Swimming to represent the United States on a national team comprised of top American swimmers.