Despite tougher qualifying standards, state meet continues to draw a crowd.
It has been 50 years — a half-century — since Bob Dylan penned the words to “The Times They Are a-Changin.’ ”
The words are very much relevant in our society but are becoming less applicable in some of our sporting endeavors. There’s only a finite amount of improvement possible in sports such as swimming and track.
It’s safe to say no one will ever swim the 100-yard freestyle in 10 seconds or run a 100-meter dash in four seconds.
In six days, area girls will attempt to qualify for state in the swimming sectional meet that Urbana High School will host.
The IHSA qualification system is set up in a way that every event winner advances to state as do any others who are faster than a predetermined standard.
Those times — known as making the cut — have been reduced as years have passed, as coaching techniques are refined, as weight training becomes more prevalent and as athletes place more of a premium on better nutrition.
Swimmers who were members of the first eight state championship teams in the 200 medley relay, for example, would not even participate at state this year based on the automatic qualifying standard.
The medley relay is not an abnormality. None of the first six IHSA individual backstroke state titlists — based on their state-winning times — would make the cut, either. Nor would three of the first four breaststroke state champs.
Where will it end? When will the marks needed to compete at state not drop by the amount of time seen in the last quarter of a century?
It takes a composite time 9.51 seconds faster this year to survive the cut in the 400 freestyle relay than it did in 1990.
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“I think we have about hit our max,” Urbana coach Stephanie Sherman said. “I honestly cannot see these times changing much from here on out.”
Central coach Will Barker is not as confident.
“Most coaches thought after we banned the tech suits it would be a very long time before we saw times that fast,” Barker said. “Now nearly all of the time standards and state records from that era have dropped.”
Former Centennial assistant Janell Shine believes qualifying times will continue to be lowered but not at the rate that has occurred since 1990.
“You will see smaller and smaller changes in time standards,” Shine said, “but in a sport where hundredths of a second matter, you will always have a hundredth to shave off.”
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Among the interesting changes in qualifying time involves the open 100 freestyle and the four-person 400 freestyle relay.
Since 1990, the time to advance individually has been reduced by 1.78 seconds, yet the time for a foursome to move on is now 9.51 seconds harder, or well above what four athletes individually would have needed.
Barker has a theory on the reason for what at first glance seems to be a disparity.
“The team concept is very powerful, especially in girls,” he said. “They have an innate sense of a desire to be accepted by their teammates and, on our team, most of them go out of the way to make sure their teammates are (accepted).
“With this comes a genuine hunger for their teammate to improve and succeed. They get very excited about that. When you get a relay that is in a close race, we often see the girl that is able to ‘step it up’ and swim way faster than in her individual events because she does not want to let down her team or coaches.”
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Barker said there are not one or two factors in the evolution of swimming at the high school level.
“It is a combination of things,” Barker said. “It is more accepted that girls be strong. Strength is becoming beauty now. The myth that if girls lift weights they will get big and bulky has finally started going by the wayside.
“More girls are involved in sports and are getting involved at an earlier age.”
Training has gotten more sophisticated.
“Back then, the philosophy was still ‘more is better,’ ” Barker said. “Now we have substantial proof showing that way of training can hurt speed.”
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Shine believes state standards need to continue to be stricter, if for no other reason than to reduce the congestion at the state-meet site.
“Society has gone to this ‘everyone is entitled to something’ attitude,” Shine said, “but those that work the hardest are the ones who deserve to be there, not just dabblers.
“The athlete that wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. and trains two times a day and weekends all year deserves to be placed at a different level than someone that is swimming for other reasons.
“Unless you want state to be a week-long event, you have to find a way to eliminate some people out of the event. The state meet is already packed to the max, so much so that athletes tend not to get their normal warmup due to the amount of swimmers in the lane.
“If we don’t drop standards and separate them, we are doing a disservice to those athletes that have been committed to the sport.”
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Urbana’s Sherman said one solution is to expand the state series, making it more comparable to how other events are structured.
“Swimming should have two classes,” she said. “Most every other sport has more than one. This would allow more swimmers to participate in a state series.”
The difference in suburban-Chicago swim teams and those downstate can be seen in the roster size.
“Most Chicago-area teams average about 85 (members),” Barker said. “They have freshman, JV and varsity teams. Local high school swim teams average about 20 to 25.
“With those numbers, it makes it tough for us to find kids that may have natural ability to swim. However, most years we can still send people to state and be competitive.”
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Swimming at an elite level requires a commitment that is not only time-consuming but also financially challenging for some families.
“To be really good, you have to participate in lessons when you’re younger and all-year-round swimming later on,” Sherman said. “It is very expensive to have both of those things, especially for a school like Urbana.
“These kids don’t get an opportunity to swim a lot until high school.”
Barker said there’s a place — and rewards — for swimmers with limited experience.
“We have created a goal where our major goal is to be better than we were yesterday,” he said. “By creating this atmosphere, we have many kids that do not train year-round that feel safe to come into this environment, be accepted and be allowed to take a risk of competing in a high school sport.
“We have had a few that only train in the high school season to make state time standards.”
However, the advantages are clear for those who compete throughout the year.
“Endurance sports have a different set of training rules than other sports,” Shine said. “If you miss training for two weeks, it will take you four to get back to where you were. Being an elite athlete is hard work and they should be rewarded for that. The competition pool should not be watered down just so everyone can be a part of it.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.
In the swim
Based on this year’s IHSA state-qualifying standards, here’s how much tougher it is in 2013 than it was in 1990 for girls to meet the automatic times:
EVENT STANDARD THIS YEAR’S TIME
200 medley relay 7.03 seconds harder 1:50.16
200 freestyle 3.50 seconds harder 1:55.59
200 individual medley 5.21 seconds harder 2:10.88
50 freestyle 0.71 second harder 24.68
100 fly 2.45 seconds harder 58.94
100 freestyle 1.78 seconds harder 53.61
500 freestyle 8.20 seconds harder 5:10.69
200 freestyle relay 5.43 seconds harder 1:39.26
100 backstroke 3.93 seconds harder 59.56
100 breaststroke 3.02 seconds harder 1:07.97
400 freestyle relay 9.51 seconds harder 3:37.38
NOTE: Diving has no predetermined automatic qualifying mark.