Swimming is an individual sport, you might train and travel with others in your club, but when it comes to competing you are all on your own. In your own lane with your own black line down the middle of it, unless of course you are in an open water race, in which case you are in a churning melee of swimmers. As pool swimmers the closest we will get to a team sport is when we take part in a relay. There are different ways to look at relays, this is how I view them:
Relays are fun. As a swimmer, there was nothing that ended a training session better than a relay. It was, I suspect, a way for our coach to sneak in some sprinting without us noticing or caring. The extra incentive being that the team that came in last had to take out the lane ropes, with second last having to clear up any pull-buoys or kick boards that were on the deck.
Relays in competitions are generally held at the end of a session or at the end of the day. So, with all of your induvial events, the pressure is usually off and you can enjoy it without realising you’re racing another 50-100m (unless you are in the dreaded 4x200m relay). You also get to race with your teammates against other clubs or another team from your club giving you bragging rights in the dressing room after.
While relays are fun in competitions they also present a great opportunity for swimmers. On an international level, where countries can only send two swimmers per event, they allow swimmers to make national teams that wouldn’t otherwise be picked. An obvious example would be the USA’s relays where the top 6-8 freestyle swimmers could all probably make the Olympic final and possibly win medals, but of course only 2 can represent the USA in any individual event. This also then offers swimmers an extra opportunity to win medals. Relays also provide opportunities to give the experience of swimming internationally to swimmers that are just short of qualifying for events individually, with the hope that the experience and extra training will help them make the required qualification times for future competitions.
For those of us that never made elite levels of the sport, a relay gives us the chance to reach heights we couldn’t make on our own. As a junior swimmer most of my swimming medals were won through relays. My highest ranking in Ireland as a junior swimmer came as part of a relay (5th), while my highest ranking in international Masters competitions also came from a relay (8th in the European Masters 2016).
Support and Pressure
Being part of a relay team that has trained together, travelled together, lived in hotels together and competed together is a unique experience. I’m talking of course about a team that was picked a month or more before the big event. There are similar feelings to teams that are picked on the day with guys you’ve been swimming with for years, but it is a little different. Personally, I found travelling to a competition specifically to take part in a relay meant far less anxiety or nervousness than when I travelled for individual events.
There still is some pressure of course, you don’t want to be the person that lets the team down by not swimming your best. Or far worse, you don’t want to be the one that makes the cardinal sin of picking up a DQ for the team. While you have to be brave and push the envelope on take overs, you also need to make sure you don’t cost your team a medal.
Racing on relays in Masters events means I get the chance to swim with my siblings, parents, cousins, uncles etc. In fact, one of the relays I swam in for the European Masters 2016 (pictured), consisted of me, my brother, my sister, and our friend from our home county. We even came really close to breaking an Irish record with that team.
Swim Ireland have really stepped up in regard to entering teams to international Masters competitions. Through the association we can enter on an Irish team, team Hibernia named after the latin name for Ireland, which means we aren’t limited to our home club, something my Danish friend tried getting his home association to do, but to no avail. This gives us more opportunities to swim relays at these competitions and more chances to win.
I’ll end this article by simply stating that I love relays, I’ve reached heights with them that I wouldn’t have reached otherwise, and I’ve had a lot of fun while swimming on them.