003.011 Sectionals, Futures, and Junior Nationals

In this post, we’ll analyze USA Swimming championships after the age group program, including sectionals, futures, and junior nationals.  While these elite zone- and national-level championships are in principle open to athletes of all ages, in practice only older athletes are able to achieve their qualifying times.


Our motivation in analyzing these meets is to better understand the life cycle of competitive swimmers.  What happens to 15/Over age group athletes in USA-S, who can no longer attend JOs and Zones? How do these elite championship meets differ from each other and from age group championships?  Are they gender-fair? Let’s get started!

Three Senior Championships.

The four Zones sanction a total of eight Sectional meets, while USA Swimming sanctions the Futures Championships and Junior Nationals.  The Sectionals all have the same qualifying times, as do the Futures. These meets have much in common: all are long course meets, all accept non-conforming times, and all have open events with no age restrictions.


MeetID

SEC

FUT

JNB

JNT

Course

LCM

LCM

LCM

LCM

Date

2019-07-11

2019-08-01

2019-08-06

2019-08-06

Standards

PDF

PDF

PDF

PDF

Announcement

HTML

HTML

HTML

HTML

Days

4

4

5

5

Pools

8

4

1

1

Converted

N

N

N

N

Non-Conforming

Y

Y

Y

Y

Bonus Times

N

N

N

Y

Athlete Ages

Open

Open

Open

Open


The primary difference among these meets is the number of competitive opportunities they offer and the corresponding difficulty of making their qualifying times.  Sectionals are offered in eight different locations across the country and have the easiest qualifying times in this group. Futures are offered in four different locations, with more difficult qualifying times.  Junior Nationals are offered in only one location, and have the most difficult qualifying times. We’ll analyze the Junior Nationals bonus times separately.


Update 2019-12-09.  The 2020 qualifying times for Sectionals and Futures are unchanged from 2019. Accordingly, the analysis presented here applies to the 2020 meets as well.

Senior Championships are for Older Athletes.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: how difficult is it to qualify for these meets?  The answer is: pretty difficult! A group of 100 age group athletes will, on average, qualify to swim 18 events at Sectionals, 11 events at Futures, and only 2 events at Junior Nationals.  For comparison, that same group would qualify for 148 events at Junior Olympics.


Breaking out the expected acceptances by athlete age shows that 12/Under athletes have almost no chance of qualifying for any of these meets, and that the likelihood of making a cut increases exponentially with age.  A group of 100 age 18 athletes will, on average, qualify for 110 events at Sectionals, 71 events at Futures, and 17 events at Junior Nationals.



Some Senior Championships are Slightly Unfair.

According to the statistics above, men are expected to qualify for more events than women in every senior championship. This is slightly misleading because the expected acceptances for open events include athletes of all ages, including younger athletes who have no chance of making a cut.  Since younger USA-S athletes are more likely to be female than male, including them in the acceptance calculation depresses the expected acceptances more for women than men. When we adjust the acceptance log ratio to account for this distortion, we see that it’s slightly (1.15 times) easier for women to qualify for Sectionals and Futures, that it’s slightly (1.09 times) easier for men to make JNAT bonus cuts, and that the primary JNAT cuts are gender-fair.


See “The Fairness of Open Events” for an explanation of our methodology.   Let’s now look at the individual championships in more detail.

2019 Sectional Championships.

We’ve just seen that the 2019 and 2020 Sectional qualifying times are slightly unfair to men (1.15x).  While it’s slightly easier for 17/Over men to qualify for Sectionals, it’s substantially easier for 16/Under women.  The net effect is that the 2019 and 2020 Sectionals admit a disproportionately high number of 18/Under women.


Let’s look at the events in detail.  Recall that 10/unders have a negligible likelihood of qualifying for these elite open events.  Including 10/unders in our calculations depresses the event acceptance likelihood of events recognized for 10/unders (50/100/200/500 freestyle, 100 backstroke/breastroke/butterfly, and 200 IM) relative to the event acceptance likelihood of events only recognized for 11/overs (800/1000/1500/1650 freestyle, 200 backstroke/breastroke/butterfly, and 400 IM).  To counter this distortion, we exclude 10/unders when comparing event acceptance likelihoods for these elite open events.


The next plot shows that it’s easiest for 11/over women to qualify in the 50m and 100m freestyle, and most difficult in the 1500m freestyle.  Typically longer events are more difficult to qualify for, in part because they are less frequently swum.


It’s easiest for men to qualify in the 200 Free and most difficult in the 800 Free.  Typically longer events are also more difficult for men to qualify for, more so than for the women.


Our weighted event acceptance log ratio shows that it’s easier for men to qualify in only one event (the 1500 Free), while it is significantly easier for women to qualify in at least four events (50 Free, 100 Free, 200 Back and 200 Fly).  The fairest events are the 200 Free, 400 Free, 100 Breast, and 400 IM. Overall, the Sectionals qualifying times are unfair to men.



The distance Free events establish an interesting pattern.  For men, it’s easier to qualify for the 1500 than the 800. For women, it’s easier to qualify for the 800 than the 1500.  In addition, the weighted acceptance log ratios show that the 1500 favors men while the 800 favors women. We’ll see this pattern repeated in Futures and Junior Nationals qualifying times.  Is this an artifact of the pre-2020 Olympics, where women were excluded from the 1500 Free and men from the 800 Free? If so, USA-S needs to make a course correction because men and women will be swimming both distance freestyle events at the upcoming 2020 Olympics.  A subsequent post entitled “Elite Distance Free Events are Asymmetric” pursues this question in greater detail.

2019 Futures Championships.

Like the sectionals, the 2019 and 2020 Futures cuts admit slightly more 17/Over men and many more 16/Under women.  Again, the net effect is to admit disproportionately more 18/Under women overall.

Futures is, somewhat surprisingly, a different experience for women than Sectionals.  The easiest Futures events for women to qualify in are the 200 IM and 100 Fly, while the most difficult event is the 1500 Free.  Again, longer events are typically more difficult to qualify in although the shorter freestyle events break that pattern.


Men’s Futures cuts are closer in spirit to their Sectional equivalents. The easiest Futures events for men to qualify in are the 50 and 200 Free; the most difficult is again the 800 Free. As before, longer events are more difficult to qualify in although the 200/400 Free break that pattern.


Again, the event most unfair to women is the 1500 Free.  The events most unfair to men are the 100 Free, 400 Free, 100 Back, 200 Back, 100 Fly and 200 IM.  50 Free, 200 Breast, and 400 IM are the fairest. Overall, the Futures qualifying times are unfair to men.


The 2019 and 2020 Futures cuts have the same outdated Olympics distance freestyle asymmetry as the 2019 and 2020 Sectional cuts.  It’s easier for women to enter the 800 than the 1500, and easier for men to enter the 1500 than the 800. The 800 is unfair to men and the 1500 is unfair to women.

2019 Junior National Championships.

The Junior National cuts admit significantly more 17/Over men and fewer 16/under women, when compared to the other championships.  The net effect of admitting more 17/Over men and fewer 16/Under women cancels out to create an arguably gender-fair meet.

Looking at the individual events, the women’s Junior National cuts are a bit of a surprise when compared to their Futures cuts. The big surprise being that the 100 Breast is now the easiest event for women to qualify instead of the 200 IM.


For men, it’s easiest to qualify in the 400 Free, 100 Back, and 100 Fly.  The most difficult events to qualify in are the 100 Free and 800 Free. 


Junior Nationals has a balance of events that are fair/unfair to both genders.  The 1500 Free is the most unfair to women, while the 100 Free and 800 Free are most unfair to men.  Overall, the Junior Nationals is the most gender-fair of the three meets we consider here.



The 2019 Junior Nationals have the same outdated Olympics distance freestyle asymmetry as Futures and Sectionals.  It’s easier for women to enter the 800 than the 1500, and easier for men to enter the 1500 than the 800. The 800 is unfair to men and the 1500 is unfair to women.  Hopefully the 2020 cuts will address this issue!

2019 Junior National Championship Bonus Times.

For completeness, we’ll take a look at the JNAT bonus event qualifying times.  17/Over athletes are expected to qualify for more than twice as many bonus evens as regular events.


For women, the easiest bonus events to qualify for are the 100 Back and 100 Fly; the most difficult is the 1500 Free.  Somewhat surprisingly, the 100/200 Breast are similarly difficult, as are the 200/400 IM.

For men, the easiest bonus events to qualify for are the 100/200 Breast and 200 Free while the most difficult is the 1500 Free.  Somewhat surprisingly, the 100/200 Back are similarly easy to enter, as are the 100/200 Breast.



The Junior National bonus times are mostly unfair to women.  It’s significantly easier for men to make bonus cuts in four events (200/400/800/1500 Free), while women have a significant advantage in only one event (100 Free). The fairest bonus event is the 400 IM.


Conclusions.

We’ve seen that Sectionals are like JOs for 17/Overs, Futures are like Zones for 17/Overs, and Junior National cuts are exceeding rare and difficult.   Congratulations to those who make these cuts! We’ve also seen that Sectionals and Futures are unfair to men, while Junior Nationals are arguably gender-fair overall.  All three championship meets unfairly favor women in the 800 Free and men in the 1500 Free. Our main recommendations to USA-S would be to (1) eliminate the obsolete distance freestyle gender asymmetry to reflect the post-2016 Olympics swimming events; and (2) systematize a fair and transparent process of choosing event qualifying times for these meets, because the individual event qualifying times are seldom fair or consistent for 18/under age group athletes.



Revision HIstory.

2019-03-05

Published

2019-12-09

Included 2020 Sectionals and Futures cuts.

2019-12-20

Use expected acceptances instead of qualifying time likelihoods.

Limit event acceptance statistics to 11/overs where appropriate.