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Sink or Swim

One-third of seniors deficient in P.E. requirement

By Katie Allen

While MIT students are expected to be intelligent, often technically-gifted, with a penchant for engineering, math, computers and the sciences, they are not expected to be Olympic-caliber athletes. Nonetheless, the Institute requires a minimal level of fitness and athletic training to earn any MIT degree. These requirements come in the form of the P.E. program, including the swim test.

Freshmen are encouraged to take the test on Registration. Day, but many students put it off until the very last minute. According to Candace L. Royer, Associate Department Head and Director of Physical Education, over 350 seniors are currently deficient either the swim test or PE points. Nearly half of those seniors are deficient in both. This is a problem, because the CAP will not vote to confer a degree for students who are deficient any portion of the PE requirement.

Many students, like Brendan P. Miller ’02, believe it is not MIT’s place to teach its students to swim. “I can understand a swim test being mandatory for those interested in sailing or doing crew. What I can’t understand is why everyone, in order to graduate, should be forced to meet a particular standard of performance in an activity which is completely unrelated to what we came to MIT to learn. In any case, the number of people I see falling off the bridge into the Charles as I bike to class every morning is encouragingly low.”

Royer explained MIT's rationale for the exam by stating that “We would like to assure that all of our graduates, when placed in a water-threatening situation (car goes into a lake; child falls out of a boat; etc.), that the person is comfortable and capable enough to save themselves and another person.”

Former director of Physical Education Gordon Kelly adds that “The swim requirement is probably the only class at MIT that can save your life.”

Swim test began after WWII

The swimming test section of the Physical Education requirement was suggested in 1947 by Gordon Smith, the swimming coach at the time. MIT was in the process of evaluating and re-instituting the Physical Training requirements that had been dropped during WWII to allow more participation in military training programs.

There had been some controversy among the Athletic Advisory Council about changing the program, which was first instituted by student request in 1891. The idea for a swimming requirement was supported by soldiers returning from WWII who had witnessed the drowning of thousands of soldiers who were attempting to disembark from amphibious vehicles in the invasion of Normandy.

The swimming requirement was therefore included in the revised physical training program. The length of the test and its composition was based on those of MIT’s peer institutions, which were also in the process of implementing a swim requirement.

Current test required to graduate

Currently, the test requires one to jump feet-first into water 13 feet deep and swim four pool lengths (100 yards). The swimmer can take as much time as necessary, but they must swim continuously (no resting on the ropes). Any stroke is allowed, except backstroke, which is allowed on the final lap only.

Many students continue to work after the test is complete, treading water for the ten minutes following the swim test. This is the small boats test, a requirement for crew, sailing, swim team, and water polo.

Royer notes that “The very best time for students to take the swim test is during their freshman year. Disposable time becomes even more elusive as students attain upper-class status. Why allow something this simple to plague you for four years?”

Students who are certain that they will not pass the test, either because they don't know how to swim or due to lack of conditioning, are encouraged to enroll in a swim class their first term instead of taking the test. According to Royer, “The Physical Education requirement is in place not to present obstacles, but to provide balance in one’s academic life.”

MIT offers the swim test every Friday morning between 10:00 and 11:00 A.M., and the P.E. Department plans to offer two community swim tests open to any MIT student, but especially intended for seniors who have not passed the test. One test will be held in third quarter and one in fourth quarter, but the dates have not yet been announced.