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A mere two weeks after arriving at the Institute, all freshmen are urged to jump off the deep end. This year about half of them did as they were told.
Those dutiful students successfully passed their first exam at MIT and fulfilled one of the requirements for graduation: the 100-yard swim test.
On Registration Day, 587 freshmen showed up at the Alumni Pool to take the plunge. All but five passed the test, which requires each student to jump feet-first into water 13 feet deep and swim four pool lengths. Students can take as much time as they need, but must swim continuously (no resting on the ropes). They can use any stroke they like, with one caveat: the backstroke is allowed on the final length only.
If they want to take water sports at MIT -- swimming, sailing, crew and water polo -- the students take an additional test. They have to tread water for 10 minutes after their fourth lap. About 300 freshmen passed this portion, called the small boats test.
"We think that every student who comes to MIT should be able to be safe and protect themselves in the water," said Professor Candace Royer, director of physical education and associate head of athletics. "Once they've passed this test, they have an opportunity to participate in great sports -- like sculling or sailing -- and maybe start a sport that lasts a lifetime."
Professor Royer said incoming freshmen sometimes call her during the summer to find out how much practice they'll need in order to pass the test. Others, like Alex Hasha of Arlington, VA, just show up and hope they can do it.
"Yeah, I passed, but barely," said Mr. Hasha as he left the pool building. "I'm sort of physically unfit." He said he didn't mind having to take the test though; "If I fall into the Charles, I won't drown."
David Ngyen of Atlanta thought the test is a good idea. "Why graduate brilliant minds without them being able to do something simple like swim?" he said. "You wouldn't want your Nobel prize winner to fall off a boat and drown. MIT offers a very practical education; this is a practical skill."
"I'm a swimmer; it wasn't hard for me at all," said Kristen Clements, from Sterling Heights, MI. However, her roommate, Grace Ng of Short Hills, NJ, was apprehensive. "I passed the swim test. But I was scared because they make you jump into the water. I was afraid my head would hit the wall or something. I usually climb down a ladder." Ms. Ng also took the small boats test.
Students who have a scuba or lifesaving card aren't required to take the test. Freshmen who can swim, but didn't show up for the test, are asked to take it as soon as possible. "We would prefer that everyone complete the test by the end of the sophomore year," said Professor Royer. "We try to avoid having rising seniors who haven't tested. Taking it their last term is pretty lame and creates more pressure at a time when there is already enough of that."
Those who know they can't swim are encouraged to enroll in a swim class their first term instead of taking the test. Still, a few students do attempt the test and fail, usually because they're out of shape. "They have a basic stroke pattern, but they're not in good enough condition to swim four lengths," said Professor Royer. "If they fail, it's usually a lack of conditioning rather than lack of skill."
Professor Gordon Kelley, director of physical education from 1983-97, emphasized that the strokes don't have to be pretty. "One young lady did the dog paddle the whole way. I asked her why and she said, 'I taught myself to swim and it's the only stroke I know.'"
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 16, 1998.