Why now is the time to start thinking about your annual swim check

A photo of Scouts swimming in a pool

There’s still a full month of winter left, and yet, now is the perfect time to get ready for your annual swim check.

The BSA’s two major aquatics safety programs, Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat, both require that aquatics activities be tailored to the swimming ability of its participants.

How do we determine the swimming abilities of participants? By administering a swimming classification test.

“The BSA has an outstanding safety record in aquatics,” says Jay Fox, a longtime BSA volunteer and current member of the National Aquatics Subcommittee. “The foundation is the Safe Swim Defense plan, and one of the key features of the plan is ability groups.”

The BSA breaks down aquatics participants as either non-swimmers, beginners or swimmers. How a participant performs in their annual swim check determines their classification.

What does a swim classification test (also known as a swim check) look like?

The swimmer test is designed to give participants the opportunity to demonstrate the minimum level of ability required for safe deep-water swimming. There are several different components of the test, each designed to evaluate the distinct, essential skills necessary for safety in the water.

In a nutshell, the test for swimmers is:

Jump feet first into water over your head in depth. Level off and swim 75 yards in a strong manner using one or more of the following strokes: sidestroke, breaststroke, trudgen or crawl. Then swim 25 yards using an easy, resting backstroke. The 100 total yards must be completed in one swim without stops and must include at least one sharp turn. After completing the swim, rest by floating.

The test for beginners is:

Jump feet first into water over your head in depth, level off and swim 25 feet on the surface. Stop, turn sharply, resume swimming and return to the starting place.

Why is the test structured that way?

The annual swim check is designed to test how someone could perform if they find themselves in the water unexpectedly, say, after falling off a dock or boat.

In such a situation, they may have to swim for a bit and then change direction. They may get tired and have to use the backstroke. They may need to float in one spot to rest.

Who can administer a swim check?

Swim tests conducted by council personnel during or before summer camp give the unit a way to determine the swimming ability of its members who will attend camp. Keep in mind, however, not all unit members attend camp, and new members may join the unit at any time.

That’s why units should be able to safely conduct their own swim tests.

Any conscientious adult who is familiar with basic swimming strokes and who understands and abides by the guidelines in the Aquatics Supervision guide can administer the test for unit activities. Councils that authorize unit tests for summer camp use may impose additional requirements for test administrators.

How often should we do swim checks?

Swim classification tests should be repeated each year.

Do adults have to take swim tests, too?

Yes! The swim classification tests are for any BSA member who will be in or on the water at any point during the year. However, anyone content to remain in shallow water may elect to be classified as a non-swimmer without taking either the beginner or swimmer test.

What is a non-swimmer?

A non-swimmer could be a person who is unable to complete the beginner test. It is also the appropriate classification for those who have not done a formal assessment for whatever reason.

What do we need to know to Be Prepared for our swim check?

Just like everything else: practice, practice, practice.

“Let’s be honest: We’re not all going to the pool every week during the winter and doing laps, right?” says Fox. “Many of us haven’t been swimming since last summer.”

Extended time away from the things we love might make the heart grow fonder, but it can also make us rusty. Just because you were an excellent swimmer last summer doesn’t mean you can walk right out and perform to the best of your abilities in a swim check after taking the winter off.

“Even if you go to the gym every day but you haven’t been swimming — it’s not exactly the same,” Fox says. “It’s great to get out there and practice just to get your breathing down and your arm movements down, not just adults but for Scout-aged children as well.”

What if a Scout or adult has anxiety about a swim check? (Asking for a friend, of course.)

A little bit of anxiety is totally normal and totally OK.

If you’re administering a swim test and you notice some anxiety in a participant, take a moment to explain to them how the test will work. Remind them that you’ll be right there next to them the whole time if they have any trouble.

If you’re a participant (child or adult) who has some anxiety, sit back and take a deep breath. Watch other participants as they complete their tests. Ask the administrator what the test is going to be like.

And remember: If you don’t complete the test the first time, that’s OK. There’s no rule that says you can’t try it again later.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when participating in a swim test?

It’s not a race!

In fact, there is no time limit in which a participant must complete the test. You can go as slow as you want, as long you are still moving forward “in a strong manner.”

In this case, “strong” means “skilled” — not “fast.” Slow, restful strokes — such as a sidestroke or breaststroke — are more efficient and easier than thrashing about with a fast head-up crawl.

“There’s always someone who was on the swim team or thinks they should have been on the swim team or wishes they were on the swim team, and they want to show off to their peers,” says Fox. “90% of the time when someone doesn’t pass the swim check, it’s because they run out of gas.”

Where can I learn more about swim classification tests?

Chapter 5 of the Aquatics Supervision guide has you covered!

BSA file photo by Michael Roytek

About Aaron Derr 438 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.