25th September 2017.Few sports offer so many challenges to the professional athlete as swimming. From the rapid pace of 100-metre races to the gruelling distances commonly found in relays, the competition is fierce, and the bar is set high. You must endure seriously intense training regimens coupled with regular competition. It's not for the faint of heart, but for those who love swimming, the idea of turning professional is an appealing one. Could you do it if you desired? What does it take to become a professional swimmer these days? Unfortunately, there is a cruel reality involved: age is a major factor in swimming success. For most people, the opportunity to become a "pro" swimmer is long past like many other sports, the field favours the young, and by your mid-to-late twenties, you're already well past your prime swimming age. There is a reason that nearly all the World Record holders and Olympic athletes are quite young. At just 32, Michael Phelps' pro swimming career is practically over; after his final Olympics appearance, he announced his retirement from the competitive scene. Even so, it can be interesting to trace the path one would need to take to "go pro" and if you know a youngster interested in making the journey, it can help you provide solid advice. So where do most professionals begin?

Start early and swim often

While some individuals in their late teens put in extraordinary effort and make it onto the competitive scene, most people who reach that level of proficiency have been swimming for most of their lives. Often, they display an aptitude for swimming from a young age. There have been a few outliers over the years, it's true, but swimming is a sport that demands extreme precision in both body placement and movement. That's the type of muscle memory that takes years to develop, and it's easier to train a younger body that is more supple and receptive to athletic improvements and changes. To nurture these abilities, swim ? or encourage your child to swim as much as possible. The water should be almost like a second home for those who want to become professionals. There will be other important aspects of training later, but early on, building up a rock-solid base of experience is the most critical step to take. Use swimming lessons to improve ability and identify weaknesses in form early in the process. Otherwise, these problematic compensations can lead to bad habits that drag your times below those of your peers' later in life. After a childhood filled with swimming, it's time to start thinking seriously about competitive training.

There's no such thing as too much training

Have you ever wondered what an athlete like Michael Phelps endures to be at the top of his field? Even "regular" competitive swimmers spend much of their time in the pool. There's not much time left over for a day job training is your employment! Most swimmers spend up to six days a week in the pool, sometimes diving into the water two or even three times a day. By the end of a day's session, they've probably logged more than a dozen kilometres. For some swimmers, this is all self-guided; for others, a coach is present to help observe the deficiencies a swimmer may have in their stroke. You'll need to spend many hours training in the water, but you'll be doing gruelling work on dry land, too. From yoga to weight training, many activities can help remove roadblocks you face in the pool. Improving flexibility, aerobic capacity, and even strength will allow you to keep powering through the turns even in long relay events. Your diet needs to be in order as well, as you'll be burning tonnes of calories during such vigorous exercise. This training is a full-time job, which is why for young people it is often best done as part of schooling.

Educational competitions are the gateway to more

How do swimmers get noticed? What do you have to do to move up in the competitive world? For many, the road begins in high school and collegiate sports. These are the pre-eminent domains for young competitors in the sport. Further down the light are bigger, international swim meets reserved for the elite swimmers coming out of these events. Joining the school swim team is an absolute must, especially if you or a young person receive the opportunity to do so early. The sooner you begin working to make a name for yourself in the pool, the better. You'll need to hunt those top three finishes and work to improve your split times. Don't give up; keep working hard. Up to this point, swimmers often see their personal best times improve by leaps and bounds, sometimes shaving multiple seconds off competitive times. Eventually, though, every swimmer hits a plateau. Gains become more of a struggle, and cutting fractions of a second becomes the most important ingredient for success. Many swimmers leave the sport at this point, unable to keep up with the rigorous demands placed upon them. There is certainly room to continue swimming competitively at the amateur and semi-pro level, but to go further, you need serious swimming chops and a little something extra.

Sponsorships play a critical role for pro swimmers

Have you given much thought to how you will make money while swimming? What about name recognition and qualifying for major events? To help spread your personal "brand" as a swimmer, you may need to obtain a sponsor. With the aid of local organisations or athletic stores, that might not be too difficult when you still compete at the local level. As you move up, though, the costs associated with competitive swimming rise, and the sponsorship field thins out considerably. Many top athletes spend time jockeying for position and battling for the sponsorship rights offered up by major companies, like those producing swimwear. If you have what it takes to make it to the highest levels of competition, finding a willing sponsor may be difficult?but it won't be impossible. Unfortunately, for many, this is among the most difficult parts of the journey. If you compete hard before entering the collegiate level, though, you should be able to notch some serious competitive appearances under your belt. If you can show up to these events and "make a splash" with your finish, you'll easily draw the eye of important sponsors.

Qualify and participate in elite-level swimming events

What events mark the top tier of the sport? National championships are a clear answer, but the qualification requirements are often strict. You'll need to win some lesser races to earn a spot in one of those meets. FINA-backed events, like the World Junior Championships, are also important for young and developing professional swimmers. Ultimately, you will need to research the competitive structure in your country to understand the right way to move up the ranks. Every swimmer has one goal in mind at the end of every training session, though: the Olympics. To reach the Olympic trials, you must post a qualifying time in a national-level competition or an acceptable international meet. Reaching this level is hard enough, but that's just the beginning! Once you reach the trials themselves, you will need to finish within the top two of an event for a chance at being picked. It's a tough road to travel, and only the most elite will make it there. Otherwise, pro swimmers spend most of their careers competing at the national and international level until the physical toll becomes too costly to continue.

Will you be able to swim against the current and succeed?

It may be true that for many, the time for being a professional swimmer is already past but that doesn't mean you can't train like a pro and try anyway. With plenty of swimming clubs and local races organised all over the world, taking part in regular competition like a pro is still something you can experience. For those who are still young, the opportunities are there for the taking ? it just requires a whole lot of hard work, dedication, and good direction. Perhaps you could even involve yourself in coaching younger swimmers as they chase their dreams of becoming a professional athlete or Olympian. Whichever path you choose, give it your all!