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USMS destroying open water swimming

September 17, 2017 / by ironmike

The U.S. Masters Swimming organization is now meeting in Dallas for their convention. One of the proposed amendments (link pdf…go to page 179) to the USMS rule book was contrary to the tradition of open water swimming:

303.3.2 Swimmers may receive the following assistance from any escort craft:
A. Food or drink may be passed from escort craft to swimmer as long as deliberate contact is not made between the two.

303.3.3 Swimmers shall not receive the following assistance from any escort craft:
A. Swimmers shall not receive flotation or propulsion forward progress from any escort craft nor make intentional contact with any craft.

Those strike-outs are significant. What that means now is that swimmers can rest by holding onto a support craft (boat, kayak, SUP) during USMS-sanctioned open water events. The rationale behind these two rules’ amendments is to align them to rule 303.9.5, which has been amended in Dallas to:

303.9 DISQUALIFICATIONS
A disqualification can be made only by the referee, the starter or a judge within whose jurisdiction the
infraction has been committed. Swimmers shall be disqualified if they: …
303.9.5 Receive assistance Make forward progress by pulling, pushing, or resting, or maintaining contact on physical features and/or craft on or near the course, other than the bottom near the start and finish and at specified locations. Incidental contact shall not be a basis for disqualification.

The rationale of this proposal, according to documents and a couple people present at the convention, is that it “removes resting on a stationary object as a disqualifying offense, for swimmer safety.”

There it is. “…for swimmer safety…” Because we’re all children.

Apparently, swimmers who have never swum more than 3k in training sign up for 5k and 10k swims en masse, thus they need to be protected. (In my experience, no one signs up for half or marathon swims who have never swum even half of that in open water already. Those distances are just too far for most, without training.) Because sure, resting in the middle of an hour or more-long swim event isn’t an aid to the swimmer.

The spirit of open water swimming is that the swimmer completes the distance solely under his/her own power. In fact, it is kind of a bragging point for most of us. “Yes, I swam 10k from location X to location Y. No, I didn’t get in the boat to rest. No, I didn’t hang on the side of the kayak when I got tired. I swam the entire distance without touching the bottom or holding on to anything. Yeah, I’m bad-ass.” You know, kind of like when pool swimmers complete a 500m swim. They swim 5 or 10 laps solely under their own power. Not stopping to rest on the lane lines.

In fact, the first 5k event I swam was kind of a big deal…to me. I had swum that far in a pool, but after swimming that in open water, water with currents and salt, with other competitors running into you, salt rash under the arms, well, you kinda feel invincible. I remember returning to the airport the next day, seeing a sign on the highway announcing that the next town was 5 kilometers away, thinking to myself “My God, I swam this distance yesterday.” Sure, the taxi only took 5 minutes and I took significantly longer than that. But seeing the road pass by, the hills and ground, trees and signs pass by, it cemented in my brain that I did something significant. This rule demeans all of that.

In the UK during my first 10k, they had two “comfort stations,” one at 4k and the other at 8k. They touted tea and biscuits. I thought that would be great, as I knew the water would be cold. When I got to the 4k comfort station (really just a big raft), I noticed it was surrounded by swimmers hanging off the sides, like barnacles. I thought to myself, Why would I waste minutes I could be swimming waiting for a small cup of hot tea? I can just put my head down and get done with the remaining 6k and have all the tea I want, reveling in the feeling of being done with swimming 10 whole kilometers on my own power.

No sprinter in his right mind would sign up for a 1500m pool event if he wasn’t ready to swim the entire distance. No swimmer should sign up for a 5k swim, which takes us mere mortals at least an hour and a half (closer to two hours for me), if he isn’t ready to swim for a couple hours. He should know going in that he can’t stop and rest halfway through the swim.

One delegate, a marathon swimmer, voted yes on this proposal. Her reasoning? New swimmers who enter open water events may be nervous or anxious in open water. If that person gets kicked in the face, s/he can rest on the boat to recover. Therefore, for the swimmer who has never swum in open water, s/he can now rest while the other swimmers actually swim the entire event.

Why’s that matter? Well, if you’ve ever been in open water, swimming like the wind trying your hardest to pass the swimmer in front of you (regardless of whether or not s/he is in your age group), you know that swimming in open water takes training and practice. You work your heart out to swim fast and straight. You want to complete the distance solely under your power wearing a cap, goggles and suit.

But what if one or more of the swimmers in your age group swims his or her hardest and is 100s of meters ahead of you? Why, that person can simply rest for a bit hanging on to the side of a boat. Catch his breath. Take a few minutes breather. Then start fresh. Or at least, fresher than you, who have been swimming at your race pace since starting the event.

Why not just let him wear fins? Or use a pull buoy? This is similar to giving one basketball team more time to bring the ball past half-court than the other. You know, because one team is new to basketball, and might need 60 seconds (instead of 10) to bring the ball from their end of the court to their opponent’s.

I’m reminded of an incident several years ago (2013?) where a woman got sponsors to help her pay for her English Channel swim. She planned to swim the channel for charity and did actually start. However, a few miles in she got on the boat, put on a wetsuit and fins, and “finished” the swim. In publications she touted herself as an English Channel swimmer. Um, no. You’re not. You cheated.

To their credit, one delegate proposed that the rule include a rider that a race director can state in the race rules that touching a support craft is disqualifying. That passed, thank God. Still, that is up to race directors to include in their event’s rules. And in my experience, I think many USMS events in the future will allow holding on to a boat to rest. And this is too bad, as the USMS hosts several championships every year, in distances ranging from one mile to ten. My guess is those events now will allow people to rest on boats mid-swim. Those events won’t get my money.

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