How to Become an Olympic Swimmer

Do you have what it takes to make it?

Michael Phelps, Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller of USA celebrate their gold medal in the Men's 4 x 100m Medley Relay on day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Jean Catuffe / Contributor / Getty Images

If you or your child has Olympic swimming dreams, knowing how fast to swim in order to qualify is just part of what it takes to get on the team. Not many make it, but those who never try, never will!

Just Keep Swimming

The first step is to be the best you can be at this sport. That means practicing every day, and joining a local swim team, whether at your park and recreation department, school, YMCA, or a USA Swimming club.

Most teams will have different levels based on swimmers' ages, skills, and speeds. As you improve, you will advance to keep you challenged—and to keep you improving. Some swim programs specialize in younger or novice level swimmers, then suggest you move to a different team when you reach a certain level. Others are set-up as "cradle-to-grave" programs, offering learn-to-swim, novice competitive, advanced competitive, and masters (adult) lessons or practices.

If you find that group instruction is not giving you what you need, you should hire a private coach.

Know the Rules

USA Swimming is a national governing body for swimming in the USA. Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) is the international governing body for swimming, and they manage swimming at the Olympic games. FINA also writes the rules used in the Olympic Games. Those same stroke rules are followed by USA Swimming.

Minimum Requirements 

To make the USA Olympic swimming team, a swimmer must finish first or second at the USA Swimming Olympic Trials swim meet and they must be a U.S. citizen. FINA rules allow a maximum team size of 52 swimmers (26 men and 26 women). Each country has a maximum of two entries in each of 26 individual events (13 men and 13 women) and one entry in each of the six relays (three men and three women).

In addition to the USA's Olympic Trials qualifying standards, there are A- and B-level minimum Olympic swimming qualifying standards that all swimmers must meet in order to take part in the Olympic Games. To quote the FINA Olympic qualifying procedures, according to FINA Rule BL 8.3.6.1:

An NF/NOC ( National Federation—a country) may enter a maximum of two (2) qualified athletes in each individual event if both entered athletes meet the A qualification standard for the respective event, or one (1) athlete per event if they have met the B qualification standard only.

If a country's swimmers do not make a minimum Olympic qualifying time, they might be allowed a wild card entry according to FINA Rule BL 8.3.6.2:

National Federations/NOCs may enter swimmers regardless of time standard as follows:
  • having no swimmer qualified: one man and one woman
  • having one swimmer qualified: one swimmer of the other sex
provided that:
  • the swimmer(s) participated in the FINA World Championships in [the previous year]
  • FINA will decide which swimmers will be invited to take part at the Olympic Games based on their performance.

How to Qualify for Olympic Swimming

Assuming that a swimmer has an "A" Olympic Games qualifying time, to make the USA Olympic Swimming Team, swimmers must:

  1. Earn a qualifying time for the Olympic trials swim meet.
  2. Race at the Olympic trials swim meet.
  3. Finish in the top two in one of 13 individual events.
  4. Place in the top six in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle relay teams.

This depends upon the 26-swimmer per gender limit.

Keep Your Dream Alive

How do regular swimmers become Olympic swimmers? With hard work, dedication, commitment, ability, speed, endurance, and a little luck. The biggest factor, though, might be the dream. The desire. An Olympic swimmer has to have not just a goal but also a vision, a vision that nothing else except Olympic status will do.