The best marathon swims of 2012

What’s the right way to decide something like this?

By fiat, like the Freshies? By committee, like induction to the IMSHOF? A vote by a group of journalists, like the Baseball Hall of Fame? Or, like the WOWSA awards, an online poll open to anyone regardless of experience or expertise?

First, some background…

‘Round this time last year, a few of us were discussing some of the great achievements in marathon swimming during the previous year (i.e., 2011). A few of them, truly world-class feats of endurance, on par with anything any famous athlete did in more visible, monetized sports. Penny Palfrey‘s 67-mile swim in the Cayman Islands came to mind. As did Forrest Nelson’s circumnavigation of Catalina.

Yet, as it stood then (in early 2012), no organization existed that was saying to the world, and recording for posterity: These are the most outstanding achievements in marathon swimming this year. The question was: How to do it? Who decides? What’s the process?

Long story short: This conversation gave rise to the announcement of the Marathon Swimmers Forum in March. And the Forum, which by October had attracted nearly 500 members, then gave rise to the Global Marathon Swimming Awards.

So there you have it: A community decision. The community being the Forum, which is made up of marathon swimmers and those who have an active interest in the sport. The reward is the respect of peers – no more, no less.

This approach was not without its detractors. Jamie Patrick, commenting on Loneswimmer, said this:

Allowing only those that are members of the forum to vote narrows your audience and does not present to the world the great things these swimmers have done…. This does nothing to bring the public into the marathon [swimming] world. It does nothing to teach and inform outsiders. It just becomes a social club voting for one of their members who they think did the best.

I actually don’t disagree with Jamie’s comments. The problem is, he seems to assume our goal is to maximize publicity. It is not. Our goal is to identify the best marathon swims of the year, and to honor them with the respect of peers. The people who are most qualified to decide this – of “getting the right answer” – are those who are actively involved in the community. Not the general public. We’re not interested in a popularity contest, or encouraging get-out-the-vote campaigns.

The open water swimming community already has an awards program whose goal is to maximize publicity: the WOWSA awards. The WOWSA folks already do a good job, so why would we copy their approach? They have different goals, and they will get a different “answer” than we do (and probably more page-views) — and that’s fine.

Anyway, enough background. After a nomination period, we announced the finalists on the Forum in early December. We then sent a survey invitation to the entire Forum membership via email. These invitations contained a unique “token” that could only be used once, and only by the intended recipient. This was to prevent fraudulent voting, which is rampant in other online polls. Voting closed at midnight on January 1st.

In the end, three remarkable individuals prevailed in the voting. They are as follows:

tina neill
Tina Neill

For Female Solo Swim of the Year: Tina Neill, for her 52-mile swim from San Clemente Island to the California mainland. This was the first time any human has completed a solo swim from this island, and it was the longest-ever solo swim on the Pacific coast of the United States. She swam continuously for 28 hours, 41 minutes – no resting on the boat! It was, in my opinion, one of the greatest feats in the history of marathon swimming. You can read Tina’s original nomination HERE.

trent grimsey
Trent Grimsey. Photo by Donal Buckley

For Male Solo Swim of the Year: Trent Grimsey, for his world-record setting swim in the English Channel. 21 miles in 6 hours, 55 minutes. Donal was fortunate enough to crew on this epically speedy swim. His written account of the experience is also pretty epic – Part 6 is here, with preceding parts linked inline. You can read Trent’s original nomination HERE.

grace van der byl
Grace van der Byl

For the Barra Award (most impressive body of work in 2012, all considered): Grace van der Byl, for a season that included nine new speed records in eight swims. She crossed the Catalina Channel in 7 hours, 27 minutes – a new overall world record by more than 15 minutes. And she swam all seven stages of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, setting course records in every stage plus the overall time. You can read Grace’s original nomination HERE.

Did we get the “right answers”? Frankly, I think we did. But I suppose it’s not for me to decide.

Interestingly, for sake of comparison, the WOWSA Man of the Year and Woman of the Year were both marathon swimmers – and both were nominees in the Global Marathon Swimming Awards. Likewise: Tina, Trent, and Grace were all nominees in the WOWSA Awards.

We got different answers. And that’s fine. I think we all agree that 2012 was a great year in marathon swimming. Onward!

Please also see Donal’s post announcing the winners.

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