How to Be a Walk-On College Swimmer

It's harder work than a scholarship

Swimmers
Be a determined swimmer and be a great walk-on, you won't regret it.  Getty Images

It's not impossible for a walk-on swimmer to make a college team, but it takes planning, hard work, and focus. Here's how to maximize your chances.

Choosing Your School

Not every walk-on has the choice of where to go to school because of finances, location, or educational issues, but if you can choose, look at schools with good programs for walk-ons.

The best way to choose a college is to assess the size of the team.

Men's swimming programs are allotted 9.9 scholarships, so if the team has 30 or 40 swimmers, many must be walk-ons. Athlete biographies on the school website sometimes say if a swimmer is a walk-on. You can check out their quality and whether any are traveling to conference meets.

Next, contact the head coaches and assistant coaches of the teams you have in mind or fill out recruiting forms online. You can find most coaches' email addresses in the staff directory. Express your interest, provide your times, and ask about the process for walk-ons.  

Pick the colleges you feel most comfortable with. Remember that school isn't just swimming but also a place to enhance your academic and social life. If you can, visit each school and see if you can meet the team, or schedule a recruiting trip. Depending on your skill level, teams might not be able to afford your trip, but most coaches are happy to exchange emails and let you know if you have a chance at walking on.

Tryouts

Unless the coach indicates a tryout isn't required, expect to go through one. This involves practicing with the team during a trial period to determine if you are dedicated and good enough to make the cut. If you have at least mediocre talent, preparedness, and speed, you'll be fine.

It's important to be in shape and ready for some hard training.

Don't take the summer off or even take too much time after your last summer meet. 

Attitude

Although talent is important as a walk-on, attitude is vital, and it will be tested. You'll have to work harder than the swimmers already on the team. Show that you'll do whatever you can to improve, whether it's grinding out a hard set or simply getting into the water first.

Have a positive attitude, even when times are tough. Be honest with yourself and don't be complacent. If you want the coach to pay more attention to you, get faster.

Hardships

Being a walk-on will be hard. It doesn't matter if you were an all-star in high school or on your club team, if you're a college walk-on, there will be a lot better swimmers on the team.

Often, your coaches won't give you the time of day, the other swimmers will harass you, and the equipment managers won't help you out. Many coaches take on walk-ons, then complain about them to their assistant coaches or simply doubt their ability. You may have to share a locker or, even worse, not get one. Use this to fuel your desire to improve.

Many college coaches and swimmers will view you as a "training partner." Use this as a badge of honor and incentive to train harder.

Try to beat the better swimmers during the main sets instead of just during warm-ups.

Seize Each Opportunity

You will have few opportunities to shine as a college walk-on, but take advantage of those that come. When you get a chance to swim at a meet, be physically and mentally prepared. If you start winning, you'll get more opportunities.

A lot of swimmers dream of being sprinters or elite at other events, but you must find your role and solidify it. Maybe you feel you are best at the 100 fly or 50 free, but you'll have a better shot at meets if you can improve your 200 fly. Scout the team, find a weakness, and fill this gap.

Despite the hardships for walk-ons, there are positives. Most teams provide all swimmers with free gear, which sometimes includes shirts, shoes, and other supplies. Even more important is the experience.

Getting to know a team, to push your body to the limit, to see improvement, and to start something and finish it is worth all the time, sweat, and pain.