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USMS Age-Grading: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Motivational metrics are used by Masters organizations across the world

James Thornton | November 23, 2017

Many if not most of us competitive swimmers have our own personal “Rubicon” time standards as we age. These usually involve whole numbers. So long as we stay under the line by so much as a hundredth of a second, we’re thrilled. But once we cross over, it’s likely our joy will be replaced by at least some intimations of mortality.

As I entered the 60-64 age group, my personal Rubicon was the same as it was in high school: break 2:00 in my best event, the 200-yard free. I knew, of course, I wouldn’t be able to achieve this goal forever. I just hoped it would be a few more years before I couldn’t.

My first year as a sexagenarian, and with the infamous body suit era now firmly in the past, I managed to swim a 1:58.43—3.54 seconds slower than my lifetime best, which I’d done in a Blueseventy floaty suit (AKA, body kayak) three years earlier. I wrote off the decline as more technological than physiological, figured I still had a comfortable margin of error left, and resolved to keep breaking 2:00 for many seasons to come.

Flash forward another three years, however, and for the first time since my sophomore year in high school, I failed to make it—and not for wont of trying. At two different taper meets, I swam a 2:00.14 and a 2:00.13, respectively: close, yes, but also impossibly far away, too. My Rubicon, it seemed, had been officially and irrevocably crossed.

Ridiculous as this may sound, the symbolic “failure” here left me super-bummed, demotivated, and worried that some occult cardiovascular disease was in the process of killing me. I doubt most aging swimmers are likely to share my degree of spectacular neuroticism and hypochondriasis.

But I suspect quite a few fellow travelers have nevertheless experienced at least some chagrin, even mourning, over their own declining speed with age. In a sport where we’re taught from childhood on that the only true measure of our ability is the stopwatch, how can we not feel this way?

Eyes on a Shifting Prize

Researchers who study the trajectory of athletic performance over the lifespan have found both good news and less-good news in their studies of Masters swimmers and other lifelong athletes. The good news is that provided we train regularly and consistently, the expected decline can remain relatively modest until relatively late in life. The less-good news is that some diminishment of performance is inevitable, usually beginning somewhere in the mid- to late-30s.

U.S. Masters Swimming, to its credit, has taken some of the sting out of aging via its inspired use of five-year age groups. Indeed, Masters Swimming is one of the few sports where droves of competitors actually look forward to getting older because “aging up” provides, at least temporarily, such a competitive advantage.

As helpful as resetting the clock every five years can be to the swimming ego, however, there’s one conspicuous problem that intensifies the older we get: Five-year increments have the effect of “elongating” with each passing decade.

The distribution of performance data clearly bears this out. All things being equal, for example, the advantage a 35-year-old holds over a 39-year-old is negligible. Not so when you compare 60-year-olds with 64-year-olds.

Consider the top men’s 100-yard freestyle times listed in the 2017 Event Rankings. The 10 fastest times for 30-34 men include two guys aged 35, four aged 36, one 37, one 38, and two 39. Among 60-64 men, by contrast, the age-group’s “young pups” disproportionately dominate: six of the fastest times were swum by just-turned 60-year-olds, two by swimmers aged 61, and one each aged 62 and 63 respectively. No 64-year-old made the Top 10.

This trend toward an “age-up year” advantage continues to grow with each subsequent age group, a consequence of accelerating annual performance declines. By our 70s to 80s, researchers have found, drop-off in athletic performance switches from linear and modest to quadratic and severe. Once we hit the latter phase, it virtually guarantees rapid deceleration in swimming speed with every year, if not every month.

To anyone who’s ever made, or aspired to make, a Top 10 time, it’s clear how motivating the quest can be. Throughout much of my own Masters career, I’ve tried to train my best in pursuit of Top 10 times no matter where within an age group I’ve happened to fall. Now that I’ve become “FINA 65,” however, I can understand why so many of my silver-haired peers begin to reserve their hardest training in preparation for an “age up” year, then slack off, consciously or otherwise, until the next best chance for glory arrives five years hence.

But what if there were a way to maintain an ongoing “do your best” drive regardless of what stage within an age group we happen to fall? What if there were an additional metric beyond the stopwatch alone to rate how good a swim is at, say, 60, compared to the same (likely slower) swim at, say, 63?

Power Points

USA Swimming already uses just such a system, a popular concept that helps to motivate legions of youth swimmers suffering the opposite age group dilemma as us Masters. In contrast to competitors at middle-age and beyond, where being at the beginning of an age group is advantageous, in youth swimming the opposite holds. Here, the age groups are 10 and under, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, and 17-18. In each case, the oldest kids have a definite leg-up on the relative youngsters. True, this doesn’t mean, for instance, that all 14-year-olds will beat all 13-year-olds. But statistically speaking, an extra year of growth and training in youth provides undeniable benefits.

To allow for an apples-to-oranges comparison between different aged swimmers in different events within and across age groups, USA Swimming uses it so-called Power Points system, which assigns from 1 to 1,100 points based on how fast a swimmer swims a given event and how old he or she is. An 11-year-old, for example, may lose to a 12-year-old in terms of absolute time but still “win” by earning more Power Points.

The system does more than just give age group youngsters an alternative claim to bragging rights. It also helps each swimmer to identify his or her top-rated events and gauge their rate of improvement over time. Coaches, for their part, can also use Power Points to motivate their whole team, awarding “Best Meet Performance” and “Most Improved Swimmer” based on individual Power Points earned. Imagine the inspiration an 8-year-old would feel at “beating” a teenaged teammate/role model.

For purposes of illustration, I took my own most recent 50 long course freestyle, 28.27, and calculated how many points this would have earned me at various stages of my long-ago youth. It turns out a 28.27 is quite good if, that is, I’d swum it at age 9, which would have earned me 1056 Power Points. The same time, alas, would have earned progressively fewer points with each year thereafter: 967 at age 10; 891 at 11; 777 at 12; 687 at 13; and so on, a steady decline all the way up to age 18, at which point I’d earn a paltry 479.

But what about 65, my actual age when I swam the 28.27? Unfortunately, the oldest age the Power Points calculator allows you to enter is 39, and even this is a bit of an illusion. When I select 39, the calculated points are still 479, the same as if I were 18. It turns out that all swimmers from 18-39 are lumped into the same category. And once you hit 40, it’s as if you no longer exist.

Bottom line: As helpful as Power Points can be for kids and young adults, at this point it just doesn’t apply to any Masters middle-aged or older.  

Age-grading for Older Athletes

Not all sports, to be sure, have such a myopic youth fixation. In 1989, the world governing body for USA Masters Track & Field, long distance running and racewalking issued its first official Age-Graded Tables for all its major events. The tables covered five-year age groups from 8 to 100 and have subsequently been revised on five occasions to reflect improving performances at all ages. (If you’re a runner, you can check out your relative performance via the USATF online calculator.)

As a way of fostering friendly competition between athletes across the lifespan, these track and field tables have been incorporated into meet management software like Hy-Tek, where they’re used to recognize top performances regardless of how young or old a runner is. In some cases, says researcher Hirofumi Tanaka, Director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, the feats of older athletes can prove the most awe-inspiring of all.

As Tanaka wrote in 2017 for the journal Gerontology, “Masters athletes are redefining the upper limit of what is possible athletically and functionally in aging. Japanese sprinter Kozo Haraguchi ran a 100[-meter] running race and broke the world record for the age of 95 years at 22.04 seconds. However, he was unsatisfied and decided to run another race two months later and broke his own record at 21.69!”

According to the current Age-Graded Tables, this time at age 95 converts to 10.68 for runners in the prime years of their 20s—not quite as good as Usain Bolt, maybe, but still within reasonable striking distance. Making Haraguchi’s accomplishment all the more remarkable, says Tanaka, is that he did not even take up jogging till age 65 and only began sprint training at 76.

The Finnish Formula

My personal interest in finding a similar form of age-grading for Masters swimmers dates back 16 years. I was 49 at the time, an age at which my need for a “handicap” was admittedly smaller than it is today. My real impetus arrived courtesy of a new guy, nine years my junior, who joined our local Y team that year. Call this remarkably affable fellow F.N., for “Friendly Nemesis”—an extremely likable Übermensch who’d been a sprint star in college specializing in the 100-yard freestyle. F.N.’s lifetime best was a high 46; my own PR had never dipped under 52.

As swimmers, there was another major difference between F.N. and me, however. Despite all his natural talent, he’d been out of the pool for years. I, on the other hand, had been attending Masters practices religiously for nearly two decades. As much as I wanted F.N. to regain his former glory, I certainly didn’t want him to beat me in the process. Alas, as the months passed and he got into better and better shape, my comeuppance seemed inevitable. To find some tenuous claim to superiority should this day arise, I began searching for any kind of age-adjusting mathematics that might let me claim victory on some level.

My quest here eventually led me to the so-called Finnish formula, the brainchild of Aimo Niemi of the University of Turku in Finland. In the mid-1990s, Niemi analyzed 500 individual world records in Masters swimming and running set by athletes between ages 25-95. He plotted these points on graphs and then searched for the best mathematical “fitting formula” to run a curve through these data points.

For the likes of me, the math here is prohibitively complex, and I don’t pretend to understand it. But as Niemi describes in his paper, The Effect of An Age to the Result of An Athlete, “When over two hundred parameter formulas were tested, the best fit was always obtained with the formula (1) time = r25/[1+(25/b)³ -(age/b)³].”

I managed to convince a swimmer/math whiz friend of mine to incorporate the Finnish formula into an online calculator (which has unfortunately since disappeared from the Internet). While the app was still up, it allowed us swimmers to enter our age and time for the 50, 100, and 200 freestyle events. The calculator then automatically converted the actual time to an “equivalent time” at all ages from 20 to 85.

I can no longer remember the exact advantage the “handicap” of my nine years of seniority gave me over F.N. But it was considerable—in the ballpark of three or four seconds per 100 yards.

My math whiz friend cautioned me repeatedly that his app was more for fun than a scientifically rigorous determiner of relative performance. He told me I should absolutely take any results with multiple grains of salt.

Of course, I saw no reason to share such caveats with F.N. Instead, I began referring to the “amazingly accurate” Finnish formula at pretty much every practice. If F.N. swam a set of 100 repeats holding, say, 1:03s, I explained that by holding 1:06s, I was actually beating him significantly on an age-adjusted basis.

Despite the gratification this brought me and the trash talk it inspired, over the course of the short-course season, F.N. steadily improved from his initially de-conditioned state. I improved, too, but at a much slower rate. It was like one of those dreams where you’re being chased by the devil and he’s in a Ferrari and you’re on a tricycle.

This all culminated in an epic duel-in-the-pool showdown (epic, of course, being a relative term) with F.N. and me racing the 100-yard freestyle head-to-head in adjacent lanes. When the smoke (or perhaps more accurately, fog) on the water cleared, F.N.’s time was 52.78; mine, miraculously, was a 52.50. Somehow, against all reason, the asymptote held!

Because of my victory in actual stopwatch terms, I didn’t technically need to summon the Finnish formula this time. But of course, I could not resist doing so.  I joked that not only had I beat him in actuality, but my Finnish formula-adjusted performance had absolutely trounced his.

F.N., to his enduring credit, did not reciprocate by trouncing me in a more literal sense, though in hindsight I acknowledge he had every right to do so. Instead, the experience inspired him to work even harder in the pool, setting the stage for no shortage of pool beat-downs in seasons to come, beat-downs for which the Finnish formula proved a psychological godsend for this actual loser but age-adjusted winner.

The British Solution

As I was abusing math for selfish aims, swimmers in the U.K. were adapting the Finnish formula to a much more high-minded purpose: inspiring Masters across the pond to add versatility to their swimming via a year-long competition dubbed the British Swimming Masters Decathlon.

The Decathlon basically works this way: Every time a registered English, Scottish, or Welsh Masters swimmer swims an official event, his or her times are automatically age-adjusted then assigned a point score based on FINA points scoring tables. To complete the decathlon, swimmers must finish at least 10 of the 18 competitive events over the course of the season.

As the Decathlon’s website explains, “Your points tally is calculated from the top score in each of the six stroke ‘groups’—Freestyle, Distance Freestyle, Backstroke, Breaststroke, Butterfly, Individual Medley—and your second highest score from four of them.”

It may sound a bit complicated, but it’s not. Everything is done automatically for the swimmers—no need to fill out individual entry forms or pay fees. To further inspire competition, the top-scoring individual swimming decathletes, as well as the top-scoring team, win prizes at the end of the year. For male and female medalists last year, for instance, the first place finisher earned £100, second place £50, and third place £25. The winning club, for its part, took in £400—hardly a fortune, but definitely decent walking-around money.

You can check out the British Swimming Decathlon results dating back to 2010. As you’ll see, top honors don’t always go to the chronologically swiftest. Last year, the top female swimmer was 85, the top male 49. Not that younger folks have no chance to win. The top 10 for both sexes included swimmers across a broad sweep of age: 28-85 in the women, and 22-60 in men.

A Better Adjustment

In the initial years of the Decathlon, age adjustment relied heavily on the Finnish formula along with conversion tables based on 1996 Masters world records. This approach was reasonable, but it definitely had drawbacks, one of which was an upper age limit of 97. This excluded swimmer John Harrison from consideration the year he turned 98. More importantly, perhaps, the Finnish formula itself assumed that age took a more or less uniform toll on every swimming event, regardless of stroke, distance, or sex.

In an effort to find a more precise model, a Trafford Masters swimmer named Alan Rowson decided to undertake a comprehensive review. One of Rowson’s critical insights was that each swimming event needed its own individualized formula. One reason that a one-size-fits-all approach falls short is the physiological systems our bodies tap for different events decline with age at different rates.

Researchers have found, for example, that aerobic capacity, from VO2 max to maximum heart rate, drops off at a significantly faster rate than muscle strength per se. This is why older distance swimmers tend to see much greater increases in their times than sprinters—and why fitting curves tailored to, say, the 1500-meter freestyle don’t work nearly as well for, say, the 50-meter butterfly.

Another confounder is sex: men and women, in short, appear to age at different rates. The distaff sex may have a big advantage over men in overall longevity, but in terms of swimming speed and stamina, it appears—at least as of now—that women slow down, on average, at a somewhat faster rate than men do with advancing age.

These are just a few of the factors that make it so difficult, if not impossible, to craft a 100-percent reliable way to compare different swims at different ages. As Rowson explains, you’re comparing a swimmer’s performance at a given age with the Masters world record in their age group.

“As a simple example to demonstrate this, if you have a swimmer 1, age 25, who swims 24 seconds for an event that has a record of 20 seconds, they would be swimming at 120 percent of record pace,” he says. “A second swimmer, age 75, who swims 36 seconds for an event that has a record of 30 seconds, would also be swimming at 120 percent of record pace. Thus, the two would have swum to an equal level compared to the world record for their age. So we could say the two swimmers have swum equally well.”

Current Masters world records, however, are far from being set in stone. These, in fact, are falling much faster and more significantly than records being set by elite Olympians and NCAA champions.

“There have been 132 men’s Masters world records set in short course meters just in the space of 2013 to 2016,” says Rowson, who analyzed the most recently available FINA data. In terms of percentage time drops, 38 of these records beat the previously held records by less than 1 percent. More commonly, however the new marks were considerably faster than the old: 69 records broke the old ones by between 1 and 4 percent, and 25 by over 4 percent.

All records in this last category, it should be noted, were achieved by swimmers 60 years old or older, men and women who, not unlike pioneers arriving in sparsely populated lands, find plenty of opportunity for glory ripe for the plucking.  Two new times actually improved the old mark by over 17 percent, though both of these were swum by men over 95 and 100 respectively. In these age groups, the population of current and previous competitors is even sparser—though this, too, is likely to change as more and more Methuselah swimmers age up in the future.

Eventually, the best human athletes at every stage of the lifespan will bump up against the limits of human performance capacity, and records will become harder, if not impossible, to achieve. For now, however, Masters swimmers in particular are far from reaching these limits, particularly in the older age groups and in older women in particular.

Few women swimmers over 65 had a chance to swim in college. There are, of course, still outstanding swimmers in these age groups, Laura Val being an outlier whose times are likely to stand for quite a while. Still, it’s probably inevitable that as more and more Title IX beneficiaries begin entering the older Masters ranks, today’s records will fall significantly.

For men, even today’s octogenarians had the chance to swim in college and benefit from four years of high-level training and coaching largely unavailable to women their same age. Because of this cohort effect, men’s Masters records, though also likely to keep falling for the foreseeable future, may have slightly less room to plummet than is the case with women’s records.

Given these and myriad other variables, Rowson decided to create 36 separate graphs of world record SCM Masters times—18 for men and 18 for women. He then used a polynomial fitting function to describe the smoothest curve for each one, assigning a unique coefficient (technically referred to as “sextic formulae,” he explains) to add further accuracy. The result is the eponymous Alan Rowson Formulae.

Though still far from perfect, says Rowson, “these formulae yield better and more realistic age adjustment times for each of the events.” In order to maintain and hopefully build on their reliability in coming years, Rowson also updates his coefficients on a yearly basis, factoring in the latest FINA Masters world records as soon as these are made available. “Unfortunately from my perspective,” he says, “FINA is slow to provide updates so we are always a few months behind at the start of each year. We tolerate this.”

If, like me, the math here sounds exhaustingly complex—not to mention prohibitively expensive to execute—don’t worry. Now that his system is set up, says Rowson, computerization makes it easy to keep things updated on an annual basis. He simply downloads the FINA world record data from Hy-Tek, copies and pastes this into an Excel spreadsheet he designed, and lets this automatically convert the new records into revised age-adjusting formulae. “It takes me about a day in total,” he says. “Less than half a day is spent on creating the new formulae, and the rest is spent spot checking the new formulae results.”

American Ingenuity

Age-grading has not yet caught on in USMS, at least not nationally. Nevertheless, at least two USMS swimmers have developed their own age-grading systems and provided these to their respective LMSCs.

The first such system that I happened upon was Chris Stevenson's time-rating calculator for the Virginia LMSC. Stevenson, a chemistry professor at the University of Richmond, is not only exceptionally smart but exceptionally speedy. He swam for Greece in the 1984 Olympics, placing 12th in the 100-meter butterfly. In his Masters career, he’s broken numerous world records. A former USMS VP of Local Operations, Stevenson remains a leading evangelist for our sport.

Thanks to Stevenson’s effort, Masters swimmers who wants to see how their times stack up against the top competitors can enter their age, event, and swimming time. This then provides a percentage score that denotes how close you are to the world record for your age group. You’d think the top possible rating would be 100 percent, but since each year’s season is based on the previous year’s records, it’s actually possible for the speediest amongst us to score over 100.

Stevenson explains all the details on the LMSC site and offers a user-friendly way to interpret results by showing the odds that a given score has historically had to make the USMS Top 10.

My 1:58.43 for the 200 freestyle at age 60, for example, earns a 95.9 percent rating from Stevenson’s system. My 2:00.13 at age 63 actually scores higher at 97.2. When I first discovered this, it provided some much-needed psychological succor: I may be getting slower, but at least on this metric, I’m getting better. Or to put it a different way, I’m beating the curve, i.e., slowing down more slowly than the sloping line predicted I should.

Unfortunately, in recent years, Stevenson has been too swamped with work to incorporate new world records into his calculator. If he did, both my percentages would drop significantly, though I suspect that they would remain the same relative to each other, which means that my swim at 63 would still score better than my swim at 60.

Ed Gendreau's age-rating system, developed by another USMS swimmer and software whiz, is used by the New England LMSC. Not only has Gendreau kept his system updated on an annual basis, but anyone worldwide can use it gratis to calculate a rating for any official Masters Swimming event. Members of the New England LMSC get an additional perk: Gendreau automatically downloads every swimmer’s data from the “My Meet Results” section of the USMS website and adds age ratings to all of these at once. New England swimmers can see at a glance not only their time changes across their swimming careers but also their time-adjusted rating progression, too. There are a bunch of neat add-ons too, including the ability to graph your swims by time and rating over the course of each season.

For narcissistic stat geeks like me, Gendreau provides a treasure trove of data that’s unexpectedly eye-opening. I asked him if I could pay $15 via PayPal for him to run all my results at once, and he agreed. I won’t bore you with the complete inventory of all my races since Y2K, though feel free to contact me if you’d like to see these!

Wish List

I’m convinced that integrating an age-grading feature like Gendreau’s, Stevenson’s, or Rowson’s into our swimming results can help USMS continue to meet its mission of promoting health, wellness, fitness, and competition for adults through swimming. Only time will tell, of course, but I believe it could prove as popular as Go the Distance has—another idea first pioneered on the LMSC level. Nor does it have to apply only to pool swimmers, either. “Age grading,” explains Stevenson, “can be easily extended to the 1-hour postal and the open water cable swims, or any other long distance events for which there are national records.”

Even dedicated fitness swimmers who never race could benefit. Swimming a mile during your lunch break at age 40, for instance, takes a certain amount of time. By 60, chances are it will take you a bit longer. With age-grading, you can see if you are slowing down as predicted or, thanks to your consistency, actually beating the curve.

As the British Swimming Decathlon illustrates, age-grading can also be used to inspire swimmers to try new events and add versatility to their swimming. Stevenson, for his part, used his system to “score” a virtual meet between teams competing in pools across the country from each other. At large meets like Nationals, adding an age rating to the posted time results would encourage more of us to watch top swimmers race in all age groups, not just our own.

To be sure, there remain plenty of topics to debate before implementing this on a national level (though Gendreau’s approach, for one, could be implemented almost immediately.) Among topics best left to the statisticians, mathematicians, and exercise physiologists to sort out:

  • Which Masters world records should be used? Should these be limited, as the British currently do, to short course meter records only? Given the popularity of SCM pools worldwide, these are arguably the “strongest” records out there. “You could convert both long course records and yards records to metric short course and use the best figure of the three,” suggests Rowson. “This, of course, relies on another factor, i.e. how accurate is course length conversion?” Stevenson, for his part, suspects such conversion formulae might have to be tailored to course by age. “Personally, for example, I find 200 LCM fly becomes more difficult, relative to its short course brethren, as I get older,” he says, “while I don’t necessarily feel the same about, say, the 50 free.”
  • Should world records alone be the data points used? Would a better measure be the median time in FINA’s All-Time Top 10?
  • What about times set in non-Masters events—for instance, Phelps’s times at the last Olympics when he was age 30?
  • How often should the records be updated? In real time (difficult and time consuming) or at the end of each season for use the entire following year (more practical but arguably slightly less accurate)?
  • What is the best-fitting function to use when plotting the world record data points? The modified quadratic approach used by Stevenson, the parabolic curve fit favored by Gendreau, the Rowson formulae, or some other algorithm?
  • What is the best way to handle the relative “softness” of the world records in the older age groups, a consequence of relatively small numbers of swimmers? Because of this, does age alone provide too generous an advantage to older swimmers? Or do the men and women who keep training to the centenarian mark and beyond perhaps deserve some “age-flation”-style extra credit? “There has to be an acceptance,” says Rowson, “that the adjustment is not perfect.”
  • What about past sex disparity in college swimming opportunity? Until today’s Title IX beneficiaries reach the older ranks, is it fair to compare men and women’s age-graded swims, or would it be better to limit such comparisons to within each sex? “In the UK,” explains Rowson, “we don’t compare ladies’ and men’s performance.” Gendreau, for his part, is inclined to agree that for now, at least, age ratings probably make the most sense within each sex, not between them.
  • Finally, once achieved, what should happen to already-achieved age scores in the future as world records continue to drop? One answer is to recalculate each swimmer’s lifetime results every swim every year based on these new records. This would mean, of course, that your past grades would be continuously downgraded—hardly a motivating prospect. Maybe a better alternative would be to freeze all ratings in the year that they are achieved. Not only would this be a lot easier to administer, but it would also allow swimmers of different eras to be rated according to their contemporaries. Consider: In 1924, Johnny Weissmuller set the world record for the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 57.4. In 2008, Lia Neal set the 11-12 girls National Age Group record in the same event with a 56.87. Don’t get me wrong—Neal was then and remains today a phenomenal swimmer. But so much has changed since Tarzan’s heyday—training, stroke technique, pool design, suit technology, and so on—that comparing these two swimmers by times alone just doesn’t work. Both can lay legitimate claim to being the top swimmers of their era.

Epilogue

Please indulge a brief return to the starting point of this dissertation, i.e., crossing my personal Rubicon in the 200-yard freestyle. The moment I first discovered Gendreau’s calculator, I entered my recent times, hoping for some sign the Angel of Death had not yet arrived to take me home.

Though the percentages were slightly off the ones that Stevenson’s calculator came up with, his reveal the same encouraging trend toward improvement.

Event: Men 200-yard freestyle
Course: SCY (short course yards)

Age: 60
Time: 1:58.43
Rating: 95.48

Age: 63 
Time: 2:00.13
Rating: 96.92

I did these calculations earlier this year, shortly before, that is, my final meet in the 60-64 age group. The results proved so salubrious to my self-esteem that I drove to our championship meet at the Spire Institute buoyed by optimism as opposed to anchored by despair.

Who knows what accounts for slight differences in performance from year to year, but I am convinced my improved attitude had something to do with it. Climbing onto the blocks, I gave myself a final pep talk: Don’t think of it as getting slower! Think of it as getting better on an age-adjusted basis!

When I touched the final wall and saw my time, I was delighted to discover I’d cross back over the Rubicon. Even better: It was my best-rated 200 free of all time!

Age: 64
Time: 1:59.85
Rating: 97.50

It would be nice to think I could continue breaking 2 minutes for a few seasons more. But whether or not this happens, I’m definitely committed to at the very least chasing better age-rated 200s for the duration.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—James Thornton

Jim Thornton is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and a Masters swimmer since 1984. A mediocre competitor in high school and college, he’s blossomed in his dotage, winning, to date, four USMS national championships and placing first in the world a couple times in the FINA tabulations. He credits his late-life swimming success to sheer persistence and the fact that, for whatever reason, his superiors opted not to swim the events he won during the years he won them.

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