What is Open Water Swimming? A 1993 time capsule

splash magazine cover

In 1993, Open Water Swimming was an unknown backwater in the landscape of competitive swimming. A year after charismatic pool stars like Janet Evans, Summer Sanders, Mel Stewart, and Alexander Popov dominated the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Open Water was still 15 years from joining the Olympic programme. FINA was taking its first tentative steps toward officially adopting Open Water under its administrative umbrella – taking over from the fledgling IMSA circuit.

On the solo side of the sport, only three people (Alison Streeter, Taranath Shenoy, and Rick Barthels) had completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming by 1993. The English Channel had 23 successful solo swims that year; Catalina had 5; the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, newly acquired by NYC Swim, held its 12th annual race.

An article from the September 1993 issue of USA Swimming’s Splash Magazine provides an interesting glimpse into a very different era of a sport which, nearly 30 years later, has fully come into its own.

What is Open Water Swimming?

Jellyfish, Seaweed, and Sharks — Oh My!

Swimmers are known for their creativity and ingenuity. Melvin Stewart’s ‘breathe-to-the-side’ butterfly, Mike Barrowman’s ‘wave-style’ breaststroke and David Berkoff’s backstroke ‘blast-off’ were all new and ingenuitive developments in swimming. Karen Burton and Chad Hundeby are two swimmers who are changing swimming as well.

Burton is the National Open Water Team Coordinator, as well as the 1993 25 kilometer open water national champion, and Hundeby is the first man to swim 25 kilometers in under five hours. In a sport that is recently experiencing a new surge in popularity, these two national champions are veterans.

Open water swimming traces its roots back to Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to cross the English Channel back in 1875. At that time, the glory of finishing a long and dangerous swim was the reward. The sport has evolved into a competitive endeavor with time being an important factor and strategy often proving the decisive one. The popularity of open water swimming has encouraged the formation of an open water committee by the international governing body of swimming (FINA) and a professional circuit in Europe.

What defines open water swimming? It is obviously a swimming race that takes place almost anywhere except in a pool. But there is much more to it than that.

The courses for these races are held in an open body of water and may be from one point of a lake/bay/ocean/etc. to another, or a repetitive circuit. The length of the race is usually 5, 10, 15 or 25 kilometers and takes several hours to complete. The athletes must contend with a wide range of sea creatures, debris and water conditions. Jellyfish are a common nuisance, especially when they sting the face and an occasional shark sighting certainly adds excitment to any workout. Add the common risk of hypothermia, and you have a real live ‘Movie of the Week’ in the works.

Open water racing is a bit of a purist sport. For instance, there are no lane lines, starting blocks or other “high tech” devices that ‘pool swimmers’ are used to. No wet suits are allowed, just swimming suits, caps and goggles. If there is a threat of polluted water, a gamma globulin shot is necessary.

The coach of an open water athlete has many responsibilities during the race. In addition to navigating the swimmers route by boat, the coach is a cheerleader, rodeo clown and boxing trainer all in one. They encourage and support the swimmer in the often lonely water. They are like the rodeo clowns that protect bull riders, always aware of water conditions and communicating by flailing their arms or writing on a marking board. The coach also has the responsibility of throwing in the proverbial white towel for a swimmer experiencing hypothermia or who is dangerously fatigued. Since taking splits is virtually impossible, the coach counts the stroke rate in strokes per minute for their athlete and may relay that information to them. The marking board is used for signals as oral communication is neither clear nor energy efficient for the swimmer.

“The first priority of the coach is the safety of the swimmer,” says National Open Water Team Coach Sid Cassidy. “Unlike pool swimming, a coaches job does not stop when the swimmer starts the race. It is really a team effort.”

During quick feed stops (2-4 seconds) the athlete drinks replacement fluids and may occasionally blurt out a question, request or complaint to the coach.

“Coaches expect verbal abuse during a race, it’s nothing personal, it just happens,” says Burton.

What do the athletes think about for six hours at a time in the middle of the ocean with nobody around them except their coach’s boat?

“I try to turn my brain off and swim,” says Burton. After hours in the water, the athletes often emerge in a daze. Solar panel blankets are wraped around them to prevent hypothermia and replacement fluids and food is always available.

Soon after the race the athletes are back in the water training for the next competition. With a sport as demanding as open water swimming, the athletes cannot afford many days off. Open water swimming is certainly establishing itself as a sport for athletes with a high tolerance of pain and an unusual level of patience and determination.

Courtesy USA Swimming, Splash Magazine