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A little known thing about competitive swimming is that there are two main kinds in the US.

Short Course: measured in yards, the course is 25 yards long. So a 50 yard race would be two laps of the pool, and a 200 yard race would be eight laps. Short course season runs roughly from October to March, with regional and national championships stretching into April.

Long Course: measured in meters, the course is 50 meters long. A 50 meter race is one lap, and a 200 meter race is four laps. Long course season runs from May to July, with the regional and national events stretching into August.

Now, 50 meters is about 54.7 yards. That’s a big difference. And when you’re an official at a summer meet for young kids, you see some pretty funny mistakes, especially on backstroke.

Here’s the thing about backstroke. If you’ve watched the Olympics, you’ve seen the backstrokers turn onto their breasts to do a flip turn. A swimmer is allowed to do this, provided they are not getting any distance out of it. So kids learn how to time their flip so that they are exactly the right difference away from the wall to turn, make one pull, and flip. This flip has to be done just at the right point so that the swimmer can then kick off the wall and start the next lap. Otherwise, you either crash into the wall, or you’re left floundering in the middle of the pool and basically, you’re going to get disqualified because there’s no legal way to get to the wall at that point, and if you don’t touch the wall, you’re disqualified for that.

Well, when the wall is 4.7 yards farther away than it used to be, this calculation changes. The kids miss the wall, and have to figure out how to solve the problem. The smart ones learn to slowly move their arms toward the waist–it is the moment where the hand passes the waist line that determines when the swimmer must start her turn–but others get caught unawares and drift toward the wall like an errant torpedo.

You’ve also seen swimmers dive for the finish. They throw their heads back and give a big kick as they approach the wall, hitting the timer pad with force and hopefully beating their opponents by a hundredth of a second. This is a tricky move, because there is a rule against being fully submerged at the finish, but swimmers learn to kick up their feet at the end of this move so that some part of their body is above the surface.

Unless, of course, they kick five feet away from the wall. Then, I watch them slowly submerge as they drift toward the wall, and call a DQ as the water closes over their extended toes.

All of this is why kids participate in meets, of course. We never see these errors at the Olympics, because those kids have failed again and again in other venues and learned to fix their mistakes. But it does lead to a busy afternoon of officiating.

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