High school sports are cyclical by nature.
Each year, a new wave of student-athletes replaces a departed one. Some incoming freshman classes are stronger than others and popularity in particular sports can fluctuate annually.
But while there are exceptions to every rule, the majority of standout high school athletes tend to be seniors.
In swimming, however, it’s the underclassmen who have shined during championship season.
Current Eleanor Roosevelt High School sophomore Michael Stevens tied teammate and then-junior Daniel Chavez as the highest individual scorers at last year’s Prince George’s County Championship as a freshman.
Only three senior girls and eight senior boys finished in the top 20 at the county meet. Four freshmen boys and girls made the same list.
There are many explanations for the trend, but also much mystery, Laurel coach John Venit and Charles H. Flowers coach Jeff Ware said.
Swimming is different than most other high school sports in that the water is its own competitor and can act as an equalizer. Swimmers’ ability to propel themselves through the water, Venit added, is crucial.
“I think a lot of it is, in my opinion, sometimes the body changes and with the body change, suddenly you’re less aerodynamic [through the water] and that’s one of the keys,” he said.
Swimmers, in general, tend to be long and lean. The sport is more reliant on cardiovascular fitness than bulk, which allows younger athletes who are still growing to compete with older competitors on the verge of adulthood. But being small doesn’t necessarily mean an athlete will move through the water faster. A balance between size and strength is the key, Venit said.
“You can look at a skinny kid and he can be fast as can be, but then I’ve seen a more muscular guy be fast, too. It’s a different body type. A lot of people say, “Oh, the tallest swimmer has the advantage.’ But that’s not always the case. If you have a bigger body mass, you need more muscle to move it. A lot depends on technique and how you put your body to use.” Venit said.
Coaches agreed the county has the Prince-Mont Swim League to thank for drawing children into fun neighborhood swim teams at an early age. The summer league is a platform for athletes to pursue year-round training.
Progress in swimming is based more on yardage and repetition than weight training. An early and continued work are imperative, Ware said. Swimmers who are younger, but started earlier might therefore surpass older swimmers who have been competing for a shorter amount of time, Ware added.
The fact that postseason competition has been dominated by underclassmen does not mean there is a lack of senior talent or that swimmers get worse as they get older, coaches agreed. Both Venit and Ware did agree that burnout and some slacking as swimmers near graduation, could play a major role in athletes’ progress through their high school tenure.
In addition, Venit added, fast times posted by a freshman or new swimmer become goal times for the rest of the field.
“If you swim and you keep swimming, you’re going to have greater lung capacity and you’re going to have built your body into shape. But whereas other sports require more muscle mass, like in football, baseball and basketball, you have to be older because looking at general physiology, [teenagers] don’t get that extra strength until you hit 16 or so,” Ware said.