Chances are good that the following has happened to you. You swim your perfect 100 IM, nail your start and all the turns, finish the race, just touching out your biggest rival, then you look up at the scoreboard to see your time, and…it’s not there. Even worse, your rival has the 1st place lit up next to their name. What happened?
The goal of this article is to explain electronic timing to a swimmer, and what you should know about how it works. Now I’m not an electrical engineer, so a technical description is beyond the scope of this discussion, but I have run the electronic timing equipment at various swim meets for nearly 27 years. I’m going to describe the process of timing, so you can feel confident that you will have an accurate time when the example above happens to you.
There are 3 levels of timing systems: primary, secondary, and tertiary. If you are at a meet with touchpads, automatic timing is the primary system. This means that the clock starts automatically for all lanes when the starting horn sounds, and finishes automatically for each individual lane when the swimmer hits the touchpad.
What can go wrong? Basically 2 things can go wrong, the start or the finish.
Occasionally, the clock fails to start automatically. The operator will usually identify this problem right away, and start the clock manually, however, the running time will be inaccurate. Fortunately, there is a procedure to correct the times using watch times provided by the timer. Timing operators are trained to turn the scoreboard off (the clock keeps running in the background) when this happens, so that you don’t think you set a world record, only to find out you were really 10 seconds slower.
This won’t happen at most meets. It’s usually caused by something being connected incorrectly, or a plug being corroded. It’s why we do a test start at the beginning of the meet. However, equipment can fail, and connections can become disconnected. We will typically need to stop the meet to get things working again when this happens.
The far more common problem is that the touch pad fails to stop the clock in one or more lanes. Sometimes the touch pads go bad and need to be replaced. Sometimes touchpads need to be “rested” if they have been used heavily. We frequently put the touchpads in the pool after warmup to cut down on the wear and tear on this electronic equipment.
Even more common is that the swimmer doesn’t hit the touchpad with enough force, or touch it in the right place! This was the problem in my hypothetical swim at the start of this article. The top horizontal surface of the touchpad where it goes over the gutter is not the active surface. They are made this way so that a timer approaching the finish can’t trigger a touch by stepping on the touchpad in a gutterless pool. As a swimmer, you should know that if you grab the gutter at the finish of the race, the touchpad won’t register your touch. You must hit the flat vertical surface of the touchpad for it to work properly! Aim for the center of the pad if you can, and hit it firmly. If you race a lot and racing is important to you, you might want to practice finishing all your repeats by swimming all the way in to the wall, and by touching the wall below the gutter. What you do in practice is what you will do in a meet, so practice your finishes.
This brings me to the next subject…
Semiautomatic timing (usually the secondary timing system), means that the clock starts automatically for all lanes when the starting horn sounds, and the clock stops manually in each lane when the timer triggers the finish (or pushes the button connected to the timing system). You might be thinking that this method isn’t as accurate as the automatic method, and you are correct. The button times are considered accurate if they are within ~0.3 seconds of the touchpad. When you think about Michael Phelps winning Olympic gold by 0.01 seconds, you breathe a sigh of relief that the touchpads worked properly.
I hope I am convincing you to practice finishing and hit the touchpads on the vertical surface, so that your time will be accurate!
So, if the touchpad fails, the timing judge will need to use the semiautomatic times. If we are lucky, we have 2 timers, and their button times usually fall within 0.15 seconds, we can use the average of those 2 times to give you an official time. If there is only one timer, or one or both timers missed the finish, getting an accurate time becomes progressively harder, and brings me to the next subject…
Manual timing is the tertiary timing system, and is the watch times recorded by the timers. They both start and stop the watches manually, so inaccuracy is built into both the start and the finish. Ideally, the watch times aren’t even used in determining the official time, because the touchpads worked, but in reality, they are needed regularly. Sometimes, the watch times are the official times, but more often they are used to verify an automatic or semiautomatic time. Watch times are also needed to calculate the times for an entire heat if the clock doesn’t start automatically, as I mentioned when discussing the automatic timing system.
I hope I have given you some basic understanding of electronic timing at swim meets. I hope I have convinced you to practice finishing your races by touching the wall, not the gutter. I hope you can also appreciate how very important the timers are. We really cannot run a swim meet without timers unless everything else is perfect, and it never is.
I recommend that you say hello to your timers and thank them for being there pushing buttons all day so you can have fun. It makes their job more enjoyable, and they will be less likely to make mistakes if they are engaged. You can also check to make sure you are in the right lane in the right heat.
If you have never timed at a swim meet, volunteer to do so. For some, it might seem intimidating, but it can also be fun. If your events don’t allow you to time at a masters meet, go to a kids meet and time. They will also be appreciative and it is usually quite entertaining.
Maybe some of you will have more questions about how timing works. If you do, send me an email at Patrick.Allender@gmail.com.