A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)

A few more volleys in the debate, from:

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.

I’ll conclude by re-posting something from Anne Cleveland – double English Channel soloist, and recently an observer on my own Catalina swim:

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.

5 thoughts on “A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)”

  1. I think the term “cheating” should be reserved for those who specifically lie about how a swim was done, not for those who choose to use aid. To revisit the rock climbing analogy again… (I happen to live a stone’s throw from the Shawangunks). Guide books typically list routes and credit the climber who first ascended. If the route was originally done as an “aid route” but later done free, it will list both. Example:
    FA: John Doe 1939
    FFA: Harvy Wallbanger 1972
    The difficulty rating posted will be for the latter.

    Rock climbing has advanced in a way where the athleticism is increasing, and though there is no law against breaking tradition, the community would frown upon someone who claimed to have just climbed a famous route on El Capitan in record time if they had fixed protection ahead of time (sport climbing) when traditionally it is “place it as you go”.

  2. Great followup Evan. Now that I’m home and it’s easier to type, I was tempted to edit to clarify, but I’ll leave it.

    I’ve got my own rant coming soon on a related subject.

    Can I point out something cool? We managed to have a rational debate about all this, because we all respect the others! Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the world worked this way …

  3. I really struggle with thus purest nonsense! In addition to long distance swimming I am also a mountaineer and keen sailor and the capital achievements in these sports for example summiting Everest is not benchmarked against Hilary and Norgay’s achievement – so why do it in swimming? It costs lives and so it is wholly irresponsible.

    To say to someone that because they are using a wetsuit toswimthe channel means that they haven’t swam the channel is stupid – if it isn’t swimming what is it ? Flying? And on a purist point how have power drinks been allowed – this clearly is an advantage as it regulates energy release which was not available to Webb and would not risk cramps, indigestion and sickness which is a real risk then.

    This principal can be applied to all sports including pool swimming and certain open water disciplines.

    Swimming is a sport that tracks under the radar and whilst archaic and exclusive attitudes rule it will go where.

    People need to take their heads out of their backsides, enjoy the sport that they participate and encourage participation.

    From a skin swimmer AND wetsuit swimmer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.