A few more volleys in the debate, from:
- Dave Barra, triple-crown swimmer & 8 Bridges founder;
- Paul Lundgren, owner of the F2R wetsuit company;
- Donal Buckley (a.k.a. LoneSwimmer), English Channel soloist;
- Karen Throsby, English Channel & Catalina soloist;
- Katie the Water Girl;
- and then, this morning, a follow-up from Scott Zornig himself.
First, thanks to Scott for the generous mention of my post from a few days ago.
In Dave’s response, he emphasizes maintaining a clear distinction between channel-rules swims and performance-enhanced (i.e., wetsuited) swims, but stops short of agreeing with Scott that wetsuited swimming “isn’t swimming.” An important question remains:
If wetsuited swimming is “swimming,” what specifically distinguishes it from channel-rules swimming, and how does this affect how we judge achievements in each category?
The dictionary definition of swimming – “to propel oneself through water by natural means” – does not appear to exclude the use of a wetsuit. A wetsuit, though “unnatural,” does not itself exert any propulsive force. Yet there are (at least) two important challenges involved in human swimming that aren’t included in the dictionary definition (because the definition covers swimming by any creature, not just humans):
- Flotation. The human body naturally tends to sink. In order to stay afloat, human swimmers must counteract this tendency.
- Thermal equilibrium. When immersed in water cooler than about 30C/86F, the human body tends to lose heat. To avoid hypothermia, swimmers depend on both body fat and their own exertion to maintain a safe core temperature.
Wetsuits bypass both challenges. So, then, how do we judge wetsuit-aided swims?
- Is it a “separate-but-equal” category – like the different disciplines of competitive free-diving, or raw vs. equipped power-lifting?
- Is it cheating – like using a corked bat in baseball, a loaded ball in golf, or injecting EPO during the Tour de France?
- Or is it something in between? Not equal, but not illegal – more akin to a personal choice. The use of supplemental oxygen in mountain climbing is the closest example that comes to mind.
There’s probably not a simple answer. I like the analogy of supplemental oxygen in mountaineering, especially for expedition swims. It’s a free world; nobody owns the oceans. Or as Paul Lundgren says: “I swim in the wild because it’s wild, I do it the way I feel works for me.” Fair enough. If personal fulfillment is the aim, wetsuits are beside the point.
The mountaineering oxygen analogy breaks down at certain points, however. As far as I know, no records are kept for the “fastest ascent” of Everest. It doesn’t really have any meaning. If it did, perhaps mountaineers would care more about enforcing the distinction between oxygen-aided climbs and unaided climbs. In marathon swimming, “fastest” does have meaning, and records are certainly kept. That’s why many marathon swimmers view wetsuits as something more than merely a “personal choice.”
Personally, I’m not willing to call it cheating – unless it’s combined with deceit or misleading media campaigns. What I will say is that wetsuit-aided swimming is a significantly less challenging form of swimming, and should always be recognized as such. I’ll leave it at that.
Interesting side note: the use of supplemental oxygen in mountaineering actually is somewhat controversial, especially in recent years. Though Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (the first to successfully climb Everest) used oxygen, Reinhold Messner later showed it was possible to do without. Recently, Everest summit attempts have become so commonplace that the writer Jon Krakauer argues that bottled oxygen actually increases the risk to climbers, by encouraging unqualified climbers to make the attempt. I believe Lynne Cox has made the same argument about wetsuits – but I can’t find a reference.
I suppose I should also address Donal’s comments about “exclusionary elitism.” Quoting Dave: “It has nothing to do with elitism or excluding wetsuited persons from participation, but rather just creating clear categories so that we may choose who and what to follow based on our own interests and preferences.”
To which I will add: Defining a category in which Philippe Croizon is not a member does not make one elitist or insensitive to disabled persons. In fact, the CS&PF itself does this, with its “assisted swim” category. Clearly, Philippe is in a category (by which I mean league) of his own, and doesn’t need anyone to defend his achievement. It is what it is, and it’s awesome and inspiring.
I’d also point out that it’s “in Dover, at the centre of the marathon swimming world” where it’s easiest to have faith in our “shared tribal history” – because that’s precisely where traditional rules and standards are most respected. So perhaps, from that exalted vista, this is all much ado about nothing.
But all the world is not Dover. Lake Tahoe is the example Scott uses, and it’s a perfect one. A site revered by marathon swimmers, yet without a governing organization to raise awareness about our shared values. In such places, it’s paramount to define clear categories and correct misleading articles like this one.
My first attempt at swimming the Catalina Channel was in 1999, a “cold” year, when only three swims were successful. I had been “too vain to gain” and didn’t do enough cold water training to make it across in those colder-than-normal water temperatures we had that year. Did I don a wetsuit and try it again? Hell no, I grew my own!!! Two years later I was successful in my quest and swam the Catalina Channel, fifteen pounds heavier, in conditions that were so rough my crew and escort pilot thought it not safe to even allow me to try. The following year I swam the English Channel one-way and in 2004, five years after my unsuccessful Catalina Channel attempt, I became the 17th and oldest person in history to swim the English Channel both ways without stopping. That was my journey and it has meant the world to me, both personally and as a coach and mentor to people of all ages and walks of life. A wetsuit would have rendered it all meaningless and I would have missed the whole point.