Is Age Just A Number For Elite Swimmers?

Is Age Just A Number For Elite Swimmers?
Photo: © Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
As we near the end of another season, many elite-level athletes are asking themselves the all-too-familiar question: "Do I have what it takes for another year? Or another three years, for that matter?" Further, they have to dig deeper and ask, "Where is my swimming career taking me? How do I prioritize swimming with planning for what's next?"

Ah, yes. Life after swimming. For most, this time is both thrilling and fearful as it contains the deep depths of the unknown.

But nowadays, many swimmers are finding ways to forge ahead in the sport and turn it into a temporarily viable career -- giving them more shots at fulfilling lifelong dreams.

Since the turn of the millennium, the sport of swimming has progressed leaps and bounds in just about every category imaginable. Advancements in technology, training, equipment, etc., have paired with more financial opportunities through sponsorship and media exposure to keep swimmers in the sport for longer and give them a legitimate shot at making it a career.

Prior to major exposure from the likes of Michael Phelps, most swimmers ended their careers immediately after their college-aged days. There simply were not enough opportunities to earn a living and fully support training and competition expenses.

Paving the way

While there are always statistical anomalies (as you will see below), the most striking story that the data does not tell is the level of sustained success in the sport many swimmers are achieving.

Take Katinka Hosszu, 28, and Matt Grevers, 32, for example. Both of these swimmers medaled in multiple events at the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, a couple of weeks ago. Both have been competing at a high level for the last decade. Hosszu won her first major international medal eight years ago with a bronze in the 200m butterfly at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome. Grevers won his first international medal nine years ago with silver in the 100m backstroke at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

How are they both still competing at a high level? Because opportunities in the sport have advanced. Hosszu is sponsored by Arena -- even creating her own label of "Iron Lady" branded gear with the swimsuit company -- and has made a fortune competing on the FINA World Cup circuit, where prize money has increased since its inception. Grevers is sponsored by TYR Sport, Mutual of Omaha, and AT&T, which, like Hosszu, helps provide him the means to train, travel, and compete -- lengthening his career in the sport.

Brazil's Bruno Fratus is 28 years old. By most standards that is very young, but for whatever reason the swimming community wants you to think that is old. Fratus just recently swam a 21.27 in the 50m freestyle at the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest -- good for the silver medal and third-fastest textile performance of all time.

"I honestly consider myself to be a kid," Fratus told FloSwimming. The Brazilian star went on to say, "People quit because they get tired of it, not because they're old."

There is no doubt that training and competing at an elite level takes a toll -- both physically and mentally. So how do these athletes keep it fresh?

"Athletes are training smarter and swimming faster," Fratus said. "Not everyone can tolerate the training routines and regimens (at that level) for 10 years or so. The difference is that now athletes and coaches are learning how to lengthen careers."

Think of these names: Michael Phelps (U.S.), Ryan Lochte (U.S.), Laszlo Cseh (Hungary), Marlene Veldhuis (Netherlands), Brendan Hansen (U.S.), David Plummer (U.S.), Junior Joao Gomes (Brazil), Aliaksandra Herasimenia (Belarus), Paweł Korzeniowski (Poland), Geoff Huegill (Australia), Dara Torres (U.S.), Anthony Ervin (U.S.), Nicholas Santos (Brazil), Junya Koga (Japan), Matt Grevers (U.S.), Camille Lacourt (France), George Bovell (Trinidad and Tobago), Fred Bousquet (France), and Therese Alshammar (Sweden) have all earned a medal in an individual event at the Olympics or summer World Championships since 2008 -- all over 30 years old at the time.

Comparing 2001 World Championships to 2017 World Championships

This whole topic spurred an inquisition to find out if there was any concrete data to back the claim that elite-level swimmers are extending careers. So, the tables below compare the average age of individual medalists from the 2001 FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, and the most recent 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest. As it turns out -- on average -- there is a difference.

In 2001, the average age of a gold medalist (men and women) was 20.6 years. In 2017, the average age of a gold medalist (men and women) was 23.0 years. While that may not seem like a large difference, it is certainly significant. Looking at the data below, you will see there is a statistical trend validating longer careers in the sport for many of the world's best.

2001 FINA World Championships

Women (2001) Gold (Years) Silver (Years) Bronze (Years)
50m Freestyle 27 23 27
100m Freestyle 27 28 27
200m Freestyle 18 16 19
400m Freestyle 18 28 19
800m Freestyle 19 19 18
1500m Freestyle 19 20 19
50m Butterfly 27 23 20
100m Butterfly 25 17 26
200m Butterfly 25 17 18
50m Backstroke 22 22 18
100m Backstroke 18 16 22
200m Backstroke 18 15 19
50m Breaststroke 17 22 25
100m Breaststroke 17 15 20
200m Breaststroke 20 15 17
200m IM 21 18 16
400m IM 18 21 25
AVERAGE AGE 20.94 19.71 20.88 20.51

Men (2001) Gold (Years) Silver (Years) Bronze (Years)
50m Freestyle 20 23 21
100m Freestyle 20 23 27
200m Freestyle 18 23 19
400m Freestyle 18 21 22
800m Freestyle 18 21 25
1500m Freestyle 21 25 22
50m Butterfly 22 27 31
100m Butterfly 27 18 24
200m Butterfly 16 24 21
50m Backstroke 20 24 24
100m Backstroke 25 19 19
200m Backstroke 18 19 19
50m Breaststroke 22 21 24
100m Breaststroke 21 24 21
200m Breaststroke 19 21 18
200m IM 23 25 21
400m IM 19 20 25
AVERAGE AGE 20.41 22.24 22.53 21.73

2017 FINA World Championships

Women (2017) Gold (Years) Silver (Years) Bronze (Years)
50m Freestyle 23 26 21
100m Freestyle 21 23 23
200m Freestyle 29 21.5 N/A
400m Freestyle 20 22 15
800m Freestyle 20 15 22
1500m Freestyle 20 26 18
50m Butterfly 23 26 23
100m Butterfly 23 23 22
200m Butterfly 26 28 28
50m Backstroke 26 21 31
100m Backstroke 21 20 25
200m Backstroke 25 28 20
50m Breaststroke 20 25 26
100m Breaststroke 20 26 25
200m Breaststroke 25 21 24
200m IM 28 21 22
400m IM 28 26 20
AVERAGE AGE 23.41 23.44 22.81 23.22

Men (2017) Gold (Years) Silver (Years) Bronze (Years)
50m Freestyle 20 28 22
100m Freestyle 20 28 25
200m Freestyle 25 20 22
400m Freestyle 25 21 22
800m Freestyle 22 21 22
1500m Freestyle 22 20 21
50m Butterfly 22 37 25
100m Butterfly 20 17 22
200m Butterfly 25 31 23
50m Backstroke 32 30 32
100m Backstroke 21 32 22
200m Backstroke 20 22 23
50m Breaststroke 22 31 29
100m Breaststroke 22 23 21
200m Breaststroke 20 25 20
200m IM 23 22 23
400m IM 23 28 23
AVERAGE AGE 22.59 25.65 23.35 23.86

At the end of the day, Fratus said it best, "As long as you are happy and healthy... why not?" Sure, there comes a point in time when the body can no longer meet the demands being placed on it. An athlete is unlikely to perform at his or her peak at age 52 compared to age 22.

But, who is to judge and put qualifiers on what is deemed "old" and "not old" in sport? Likely someone sitting in the stands.

For all of those athletes who continue to press forward in search of a fulfilling career: keep going. The sport needs you in order to grow and advance.

As Nemo in "Finding Nemo" famously says, "Just keep swimming."


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