Article for Parents: The Phenom and the Climber

by Ryan Woodruff

Ours is a competitive sport and one that easily lends itself to comparison.  Whereas in basketball or soccer for example we could have endless debates about who is a better player, in swimming we have the most black and white tool for comparison that exists: THE CLOCK.  This is awesome because it allows to us to know exactly where we stand versus the competition at any meet or season of a swimmer’s career.  This knowledge can be motivating but it ignores one critical truth: that swimmers mature, grow, and improve at vastly different rates.  Every swimmer follows his or her own path.

Here is an example: Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Held both made the US Olympic team in 2016 — Dressel in the individual 100 free and both men as part of the 400 freestyle relay.  But they took different paths to get there. Dressel was an age group phenom at St. John’s Country Day School, later the Bolles School, and eventually the University of Florida.  Held grew up swimming for the Springfield (Illinois) YMCA team and swam collegiately at NC State, steadily climbing the ranks.

Here are their career progressions, by the numbers:

100 Free (LCM) Dressel Held
Age 11 59.76
Age 15 50.85 58.67
Age 20 47.17 48.26


At age 11, Caeleb Dressel was already a National Age Group record holder.  Held wouldn’t even record an official time in the long course 100 free until age 15.  Held at 15 was only 1.10 seconds faster than 11 year-old Dressel.

A closer look at their short course times is even more revealing.

100 Free (SCY) Dressel Held
Age 9 1:03.12
Age 11 54.08 1:06.78
Age 13 49.85 51.97
Age 15 44.27 45.83
Age 17 42.85 43.31
Age 21 39.90 41.05


At age 9, Caeleb Dressel was already putting up very good times in Florida, and by age 11 he was a certified phenom.  At age 11, Held had posted a time that would be 9 seconds slower than the current age group champs qualifying time in Illinois.

Both of these athletes have impressive progressions of steady improvement over time.  I remember watching Caeleb Dressel at age 10 in Florida – it was clear he was headed for big things.  If 11 year-old Ryan Held was at a meet I attended, I would have never even noticed him.  Held just kept climbing.

My point is that no two swimmers follow the same path.  Every swimmer is judged by the clock, but some swimmers will show promise early, and others won’t.  It is folly to suggest that elite senior performance can be accurately predicted.

For parents, it important to support the swimmer in his or her quest to continually improve without making comparisons.  What other swimmers are or are not achieving is simply not relevant.  Johnny being faster than Jimmy at age 10 is meaningless as evidence of who will be faster at 16. Parents can help by promoting commitment, hard work, and being a good teammate – the results will come, however fast they may be.