How to Be a Walk-On College Swimmer

You Must Work Harder Than Your Teammates with Scholarships

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

I was a talented swimmer in high school. I worked my butt off and earned a swimming scholarship at Purdue University. During my time there, I interacted with many walk-on swimmers, who were some of the hardest-working individuals I met, striving for any improvement at each workout.

Although college swim teams highlight a lot of elite swimmers, there is also a role for walk-on swimmers, even if they won't be the next Michael Phelps.

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 school is to assess the size of a 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 schools 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.


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. 


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.


Being a walk-on will be hard. No matter if you were an all-star in high school or your club team if you're a walk-on, there are going to 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 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.

Understand that life isn't fair. You'll have to earn the right to be treated fairly.

Seize Each Opportunity

You will have few opportunities to shine as a 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.