Swimmers are often required to provide their own timers and counters for distance (longer than 200 meters) events. 

Counting and timing is the perfect opportunity to grab a front row seat to some amazing swimming!

  • Once you agree to count or time, make sure you know your swimmer’s correct heat and lane! 
  • Locate the lane and double check to make sure you have the necessary equipment.

Generally the only things you'll need are the counting cards, and they are always provided at the pool. Some situations call for you to have a stopwatch too. But that is seldom the case.


Talk to your swimmer before his or her race.

You generally count up by showing how many laps have already been swum.

You could count down by showing how many laps are remaining in the race.

Counting up or counting down is a personal decision, and it totally depends on the preference of the swimmer. Some meet officials require one way or the other. Often, the counters count UP.

If possible, talk to the coach too.

Best to chat with the coach while the swimmer is present too.  

Many coaches have signals they use to communicate with the swimmers during a race. For example, if they ask you to shake the card back and forth, that may mean, “Pick it up!” Holding the cards steady may mean “maintain.” A vigorous up and down motion may mean, “You’d really better pick up the pace!”

Lap Counters

Counters use counting cards to help communicate with the swimmers. These are thick, square pieces of plastic that have “doors” that flip back and forth. Every “door” has either a number or a bright orange square. There should be a lock on top to help lock the doors in place.

It is important to know how many lengths (from one end of the pool to the other) there are in a distance race. The first number to show your swimmer is 1, when counting up. Otherwise, the number is the top end of the race when counting down.

Counters at end of pool

It's always COOL to count for your friends! COOL Swim Team members count and cheer for the their teammates at the 2021 Summer Invite in Columbia, MO.

Getting to your spot

Be in position at the end of the lane for the swimmer you are counting for. Have the card turned to the correct number before the race begins.

When there are other heats of the same distance, you obtain the cards from the person in the prior heat. 

When this race is the first of its kind, and the counting cards were not in use, you might need to make sure that the cards are on-deck and not sitting elsewhere, tucked away in a closet. 

The starter should not begin the race until all the counters are behind the lanes.

Race time

Swimmers dive in and swim the first length and the cards are not often put into the water. Prior to the first flip turn, none have forgotten where they are. So, cool your jets at the very outset of the race.

As the athletes are approaching the flags to starting end of the pool, then you can begin to flip to the first number you'll display. Flip the number as the swimmer you are counting for does his or her second flip turn. That turn is going to be at the far end of the pool.

Then as the swimmer you are counting for is nearing the end of the third length, then is the time to quickly place the card in the water to display the correct number.

Pull the cards out of the water and out of the way as the swimmer begins to do the flip turn. You want the card out of the way so they do not kick it when they turn.

Turn the card to the next number as the turn occurs at the other end of the pool.

If you are counting for a 500, the next number should be 5 (if you are counting UP). Or, the next number is 15 (if you are counting DOWN).

Remember, you're only going to count by odd numbers!

Most of the counting cards only provide the odd numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19 (or RED/ORANGE rectangles).

Signal races

When your swimmers turns for the final 50-yards (short course) or 100-meters (long course) the meet referee or lane timer generally rings a bell over the lane of the lead swimmer. It might be a cow-bell, a school bell, or even just a whistle. 

This signal means that the swimmer only has two laps to go to complete the race!

Some meets give a "bell lap" signal for every lane with a swimmer. Other meets only give a signal for the lead swimmer. The first place swimmer gets that benefit while the other swimmers who are farther behind get nothing, except for your counting, of course.

As the swimmer you are counting for comes in for the final turn, hopefully you have flipped to the bright, orange squares. Then place them into the water.

In the 500 free, don't show 19. Rather show the orange or red signal. This means that the swimmer only has one one turn and one length to the finish. The race is just about DONE. Finish fast!

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