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The Swim-Test Imperative

BY MARGOT ZALKIND
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Winter, off-season for many rowing clubs and programs, is the time to do housekeeping: Get the equipment in order, sweep the floors, start indoor training, and have rowers get their swim tests.

Why do teams need to do swim tests?  To find out not only who can swim but also who is comfortable and not comfortable in the water.  Swim tests not only separate the complete non-swimmer from the totally capable but also identify the levels in between.  

As you get into this process, be sensitive. Not everyone has easy access to a pool or a facility. Offer to help your rowers find a way to get the swim test by asking if they have such a place available. If not, bring your rowers as a group, perhaps to the local Y, keeping in mind that some might be embarrassed by their inability to swim and may need lessons. 

1. How should teams conduct swim tests?

Some organizations have the rowers sign a form. That’s it. “Yes, I can swim.” 

Is that enough? No, we don’t think so. Better, a supervised test of a specified time duration, monitored by a lifeguard. 

Some years ago, we heard that a masters rower blithely signed a form attesting that he could swim. He was eager to row and he lied—and drowned. When the club was sued, it came to light that he couldn’t swim at all. Why would someone do that? 

We support a witnessed, documented swim test. Have a lifeguard administer and certify  the evaluation. Casey Baker, who coached Florida Tech to five Sunshine State Conference championships and four NCAA national-championship appearances, ran a swim test that consisted of 50 yards swimming and 10 minutes treading water.  

“It was surprising that a seemingly simple test was a bit taxing for some,” Baker said. “When people ‘know’ how to swim, they typically don’t swim much unless they are used to laps in a pool or in water where they can’t touch anything. Most ‘swim’ in protected areas or at the beach where they can touch the bottom, hang on a buoy line or something similar. At no time during the swim test is the participant allowed to rest on the side of the pool or touch the bottom of the pool.”

3. Where should they be conducted?  

Some use a pool; others prefer to re-create a true environmental situation, and the tests take place in the body of water they row on, if possible.

4. Why should the coach observe?

Coaches need to know: Whom should I save first? 

As a coach, you want to know who is freaked out by being in the water if an accident occurs. This supports the idea of a coach watching the tests. Assess individuals for their endurance and comfort level. 

Coaches should watch the test to learn the stamina and comfort level of all rowers.  We also suggest that you add putting on a life jacket in the water. Caution: Whoever is monitoring the swim test needs to be ready to rescue.

5. What should someone wear for the test?

Some organizations accept a swimsuit; others prefer to replicate reality and have the rower take the test in rowing clothes. 

We looked at several websites to see what clubs across the U.S. require. Community Rowing (CRI) in Boston has a very good procedure that ensures a realistic assessment of swimming ability.  Here are excerpts from their website: 

Why do I need to complete a swim test?
Rowing takes place on the water, and while falling out of the boat is unlikely, it is possible. Therefore, each CRI member must prove his or her ability to swim. Once a valid swim test is successfully submitted and recorded, resubmission is not required.

What type of swim test do I need?
A certified lifeguard must confirm in writing that you are able to swim 100 yards and remain afloat for five minutes before you are permitted to row in club boats. For your protection and the protection of Community Rowing, Inc., we make NO EXCEPTIONS to this policy.

Where can I complete my swim test?
Participants are responsible for finding a certified lifeguard to watch them perform the swim test and sign the form. Lifeguards can be found at municipal pools, YMCAs, schools and colleges, and recreational facilities. It is recommended that individuals call ahead to confirm swim test hours and fees.  

When is my swim test due?
Swim-test documents must be received no later than the first day of the program in which you are participating. Please make sure to write your name on your swim test before turning it in. You can mail in your swim test before the start of your program.

What if I haven’t taken my swim test yet?
A registered rower without a valid swim card will be asked to wear a life preserver until he or she can provide written proof of his or her swimming ability.

What if I don’t know how to swim?
Non-swimmers are encouraged to take swimming lessons and pass a swim test before registering for a rowing program. It can be difficult to progress as a rower while wearing a life jacket because it can inhibit proper rowing technique.

Bottom line? We agree with Community Rowing. A certified lifeguard must confirm in writing that a rower is able to swim 100 yards and remain afloat for five minutes. 

Row safe. Actually, row safer. Get into a safety mindset. On the water and in the water. 

Special thanks to Community Rowing for sharing this information.

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