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by Elaine K Howley

September 11, 2020

Very young and very old swimmers weren’t originally part of the plan

Over the years, certain contentious issues have vexed the leadership and tested the ability of U.S. Masters Swimming to grow and develop. One of the most debated of these issues to hit the House of Delegates floor was the simple question of how old swimmers needed to be to participate in Masters Swimming.

For the first two decades or so of USMS’s existence, swimmers had to be at least 25 to become members. Adult swimming, it seemed, was something you couldn’t do until years after you were legally allowed to have a drink or cast a vote in an election. And a lot of that goes back to how swimming’s international governing body, FINA, was set up. 

FINA’s official rules for Masters swimming do not extend to cover swimmers under the age of 25. USMS was in step with this until the mid-1980s when some folks began advocating for adding a younger age group. This faction wanted to see that change made so that the organization could be more inclusive and reach a segment of the swimming population that didn’t have other options for swimming.

But simply adding an age group turned out to be a lot more difficult than we might expect looking back now.

“We had huge arguments over this,” says Tom Boak, a longtime member of the Woodland Masters Swim Club in Texas who also served as USMS’s president from 1981 through 1985. One segment of the USMS leadership believed that because FINA didn’t recognize swimmers younger than 25, USMS simply couldn’t have swimmers younger than 25 involved either.

“There was another faction that said, ‘That’s crazy. We have all these people out here, we need to service this group,’” Boak recalls. “The huge gap between collegiate swimmers leaving college and when they can start swimming with Masters made no sense.”

To help address this issue, Boak recalls that proposals were floated starting in the mid-1980s, but it was an uphill battle to get it passed.

Nancy Ridout, longtime Masters swimmer and volunteer who served as president of the organization from 1997 to 2001, remembers the anti-younger age group faction “really used scare tactics” to try to sway more people to their side.

“There was a rule that prohibited amateur swimmers from being ‘tainted’ by professionals,” Ridout says. “The rule stated that an amateur swimmer couldn’t swim in a pool or a meet or competition with a professional. Because Masters were considered professional, they figured that if college kids came home for the summer and wanted to work out, and the best place to do that was with a Masters group, they would forfeit their opportunity to swim in college or in the Olympics. They were afraid that leadership within FINA would not look kindly on this and it would jeopardize our American swimmers” on the world and collegiate stages.

After much lobbying on both sides, a final vote was held at USMS’s annual meeting in 1990. It was such a contentious issue and such a close vote that “we counted the votes like five different times and every time it came out different,” Boak says.

To break the stalemate and arrive at an accurate count, “we had to actually physically divide the House of Delegates” at the annual meeting, Boak recalls. “Everybody in the House of Delegates had to stand up from their chairs and move to one side or the other of the room so that we could count the votes.”

On that final vote, “the proposal to add a 19- to 24-year-old age group passed by two votes, which is unbelievable,” he says.

Looking back now, Boak says the opposition to adding the younger swimmers was “totally illogical.” But it was a hot-button issue that required a lot of time and effort to work through. In the end, however, “that decision was monumental in terms of what Masters Swimming became.”

The addition of the younger age group meant “there would be no gap at all for someone who wanted to continue swimming after they got out of high school or college,” and it helped increase USMS’s membership numbers. With the more recent addition of College Club Swimming as a USMS program, the ranks of younger USMS members continue to grow.

In 2002, the age at which a swimmer could register with USMS was again lowered—to 18—but these 18-year-olds would have to wait until age 19 to compete. That rule was changed in 2005 when 18-year-olds were granted permission to register and compete just like any other adult.

At the other end of the age spectrum, it appears human longevity may be the only limiting factor in how many age groups get added. In 1989, the 90–94 age group was added. Although FINA still doesn’t recognize Masters swimmers younger than 25, it defines Masters age groups in five-year increments starting at age 25 and going “as high as necessary.” The organization spells out age groups through 90–94 in its rule book.

USMS’s rule book lists out all age groups running from 18–24 right up though 100–104 and includes a provision for additional five-year age groups to be added “as high as is necessary.” As humans continue to find ways of living longer and healthier, look for additional defined age groups to be added in the future.


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