So... what really makes US college and university swimming (and high school swimming) different from Olympic swimming? The strokes are the same. The swimmers are the same. The events are more or less the same. What is the difference?
The swimming pool! More specifically, the length of the swimming pool.
Swimming in the USA's college and university system is almost entirely done in SCY - short-course yards. The normal college swimming competitive pool is 25 yards long. Olympic swimming is done in LCM - long-course meters. Olympic pools are 50 meters long. There are also SCM pools - short-course meters, that are 25 meters long, but in the USA these are not very common. They are very common in the rest of the swimming world, and there are world championships held in both 50 meter LCM pools and in 25 meter SCM pools. In 2000 and 2004, NCAA DI Championships were held in a SCM pool.
Why does that matter? Sure, one is longer than the other, but what is the big deal? Running tracks are 440 yards or 400 meters most of the time. Is there that big a difference between yards and meters in swimming pools?
Yes, there is... For starters, the length difference between 25 yards and 25 meters is about 10%. That means that a 50 meter swimming pool is about 55 yards long - a swimming pool that is 50 meters long, converted to yards, would be 54.68 yards long.
Then there are the turns. In a yard pool, every swim done in a high school or college meet has at least one turn. In a 25 yard short course yard pool, a 50 is a start, a turn, and a finish - but in a 50 meter long course pool, a 50 is a start and a finish. No turn! Swimmers have a higher speed, compared to swimming in the middle of the pool, when they are at the start and as they come off the walls after a turn. The shorter pool (25 yards or 25 meters) that includes more turns that will help a swimmer to reach a higher average speed. The result is that a shorter pool, with more turns for the same race distance, equals a higher average speed, which equals a faster swim.
One example - the men's 50 freestyle as of 7 March 2012. In a long course pool - LCM - no turns. IN a short course meters pool - SCM - one turn, and the same one turn in the much shorter short course yards - SCY - swimming pool:
- LCM: Cesar Cielo BRA 20.91 = 2.39 m/sec (2009 - suit worn is now banned)
- LCM: Fred Bousquet FRA 21.36 = 2.34 m/sec (2010 - textile suit)
- SCM: Fred Bousquet Auburn 21.10 = 0.26 seconds faster than LCM = 2.36 m/sec (2004 - textile suit)
- SCY: Cesar Cielo Auburn 18.47 = 2.89 seconds faster than LCM = 3.00 m/sec (2008 - suit worn is now banned)