Around the world, pools are designed and constructed to be one of two standardized lengths: 25 meters and 50 meters…except in the United States.
In America, the 25- and 50-meter standard that the rest of the world uses doesn’t cut it. The United States is the only country in the world to use 25-yard pools as the standard. Most American swimmers train and compete in a 25-yard pool.
So why is the United States the only country that swims in a 25-yard pool? Why did yards take over in the United States even though the rest of the world continues to use meters? Let’s dive in.
The Difference Between Yards and Meters
Everyone knows that yards are shorter than meters. But does swimming in a 25-yard pool actually make a difference when it comes to training and speed? The short answer is: Yes.
One yard is about 9% shorter than one meter, which means a 25-yard pool is just 22.86 meters. That’s about 54% shorter than a 50-meter pool.
So in short, it’s really short! And many swimmers who grew up swimming meters feel a noticeable difference when they hop in a 25-yard pool for the first time. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it’s actually pretty massive.
Comparing Yards and Meters Race Times
The proof is in the world records. The shorter the pool course, the faster the race times.
For example, the world record in the men’s 50-meter freestyle is 20.91 seconds for long course meters, 20.16 in short course meters, and 17.63 for short course yards.
The record in a 25-yard pool is a whopping 3.28 seconds faster than the world record in the 50-meter pool!
In a shorter pool, swimmers do turns more frequently and can take advantage of the extra speed boost to finish faster.
If they end up pushing all of their underwaters to the full 15-meter limit, swimmers in a 25-yard pool will spend a larger percentage of their race underwater compared to swimmers racing in a longer pool.
15 meters is 65.6% of 25 yards, 60% of 25 meters, and only 30% of 50 meters.
That means, in a 50 freestyle, a swimmer who hits 15 meters underwater on both laps is going to spend 32.8 yards underwater in a 25-yard pool, 30 meters underwater in a 25-meter pool, and just 15 meters underwater in a 50-meter pool, since the long course race is just one length.
Streamline dolphin kick is the fastest way to move through the water, so it’s all simple math! A shorter pool equals more underwater time, which equals faster race times.
And yes, the 15-meter underwater rule still applies in a yards pool.
But if we’re getting technical, any records set in the 25-yard pool don’t really count as world records. They’re considered U.S. Open Records, because they can only be performed in the United States of America. That doesn’t make them any less impressive, though.
All of this applies to training, too. Swimmers who train in a yards pool will typically swim on faster intervals than swimmers who train in meters.
If you train both yards and meters, you’ll get really good at doing math in your head to figure out how to adjust your intervals depending on the pool you’re in. Or you could use the MySwimPro app, which does the math for you!
Beyond faster intervals and race times, short course yards comes with a few more differences in race distances, too. Instead of the 400-meter freestyle, American swimmers do a 500-yard freestyle. And the 1,500-meter freestyle event is swapped for the 1,650-yard “mile” swim.
These adjustments were made to make yards swims align a little better with their counterparts in meters.
Maybe you think that’s odd, but the 500 and the 1,650 are the standard for Americans! Unless they compete in long course meets, most American swimmers will never race a 400 or 1,500 freestyle.
If you like to watch fast racing, check out short course yards competitions. If the epic NCAA racing that has gone down in the last few years is any indication, short course yards is definitely worth a watch.
When Did the United States Start Using Yards?
All of those facts and numbers aside, why does the US have such a love affair with yards? The story starts a few hundred years ago, and it extends far beyond pools.
In the 1790s, the United States officially adopted the British Imperial System of measurement, which brought with it yards, inches, feet, miles, pounds, ounces and a whole slew of other measurements. At the time, the metric system wasn’t quite as popular as it is today.
During the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing exploded in the US. Factories, machinery and workers were all using imperial measurements to produce products that also featured imperial measurements.
Because of this, the United States got stuck with the imperial system while the rest of the world eventually adopted the metric system.
As the imperial system took hold in all other aspects of life in the United States, it affected the construction of swimming pools, too.
Early Swimming Pools
It’s important to note that 25- and 50-meter pools were not the standard back in the day, either. It took a while for the swimming world to figure out the best pool courses for international competition.
In early competitions, pools didn’t look like the perfect, shiny rectangles we see today. In fact, most of the early swim races were done in open water – even the 100-meter freestyle! Swimmers would ride a boat to the starting point and swim 100 meters back to shore.
In other competitions in the early 1900s, swimmers competed in a 100-meter-long pool. Can you imagine doing a 100 free with no flip turns? There wasn’t any chlorine in the water, which made the water murky and difficult to swim in.
Without a standard pool for competition, race times and records were tough to track and compare. Swimming a 100 free in open water is very different from swimming it in a more controlled, 100-meter pool setting.
Around that same time, many long-course pools in the US, UK and Australia were 55 yards, which is about 50.3 meters. The 55-yard pool made for easy race calculations, like the 1,760-yard mile.
But that pool wouldn’t last much longer. The 50-meter, Olympic-sized pool with lane markers was introduced in 1924 and has been the standard for long-course competition ever since. Diving blocks were not introduced until the 1930s, however.
Once the 50-meter pool became the international standard, it made perfect sense to chop it in half and use 25 meters for short course swimming.
The US ended up agreeing to follow the 50-meter standard for long course, and facilities that could afford it ended up swapping their 55-yard pools to 50-meter pools. But the Americans stood strong on the 25-yard, short course pool. They weren’t giving that up!
Stuck with Short Course Yards
At this point, you might be asking: If the US already transitioned some older pools to the metric system, why don’t they just go all the way and leave yards pools behind for good?
Simply put, the United States is in too deep to turn back. It would be too expensive to swap the country’s infrastructure – and rebuild all the short course pools – to conform to the metric system.
There are hundreds of thousands of 25-yard pools in the US that cater to recreational swimmers, children and high school swim teams. Most of them couldn’t put up the cash to extend their pools to 25 meters.
There are plenty of 25-meter and 50-meter pools in the United States as well.
In fact, Americans do compete in the 50-meter long course discipline all the time. 25-meter pools aren’t quite as common, but they’re out there if you know where to look.
While Americans swim in 25 yard pools most of the time, the United States’ gold medal collection is proof that Americans can hang with the best of the best in meters.
The Reality of 25-Yard Pools
Despite all the debate about yards versus meters, many foreign swimmers still end up moving to the United States to swim in the NCAA, where they have to train and compete – you guessed it – in yards!
The United States has a lot to offer swimmers from around the world, even if the pool course is a little different.
It’s easy to understand how training in a 25-yard pool might be counterintuitive for swimmers who compete internationally. In an ideal world, they’d train in the same pool course they compete in most of the time.
And most elite swimmers training in the United States can get access to 25-meter or 50-meter pools if they really need them, but the vast majority of swimmers in the United States will never compete on the world stage. If they do compete, it will probably be in a 25-yard pool! Sticking with yards is perfectly fine for most people.
We can’t say that the United States will never switch to short course meters and drop yards completely, but we’ll have to wait and see. If the past is any indication of the future, it’s unlikely anything will change.
Let us know in the comments which pool length you prefer. Does the United States have it figured out, or are American swimmers crazy for swimming yards?