There’s No Such Thing as a “World Record” in Open Water Swimming

There is (almost*) no such thing as a “world record” in open water swimming.

The term “world record” implies that the activity being measured is comparable across different contexts (hence “world”). A 200m Butterfly swum at The Nat in Indianapolis can be compared to a 200m Butterfly swum at the beautiful new facility at Belmont Plaza, because both pools have been measured at 50m. A 200 Fly is a 200 Fly is a 200 Fly.

Open water swimming is, in most cases, not comparable across different contexts. And isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that, at some level, why most of us are drawn to OWS in the first place?

A swim from Santa Rosa Island to my hometown of Goleta is not meaningfully comparable to the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, despite both swims being 28 miles.

What about “world records” for specific swims? Obviously a Catalina Channel swim is incomparable to a Maui Channel swim, but surely a Catalina Channel swim is comparable to a Catalina Channel swim? Excluding weather and conditions, surely we can say that Penny Lee Dean swam the fastest crossing of the Catalina Channel (7 hours, 15 minutes, 55 seconds in 1976)?

Yes, I agree: Penny Lee Dean is the fastest solo swimmer across the Catalina Channel. But that is a course record, or “Catalina Channel record.” Not a “world record.” Is it possible to swim the Catalina Channel in… Ireland? Or Mozambique? No? Then it’s not a world record.

There is no “world record” for the Boston Marathon. There is no “world record” for Ironman Hawaii. But there are Boston Marathon course records, and Ironman Hawaii course records.

There’s a reason FINA hires surveyors to measure pools for international-level swim meets. There’s a reason there are wind-speed gauges at big track meets: So the courses are comparable, regardless of the location. So world records can be authenticated.

So why do some open water swimmers claim world records?

Promoter Steven Munatones provided some insight on the Marathon Swimmers Forum (bold added):

I have learned about thousands of new swims, new swimmers and new bodies of water around the world. I literally have thousands of swims that I have yet to input in the WOWSA database. Every one of these swims and swimmers should be recognized and, frankly, I think calling the swimmers a World Record Holder is cool and uplifting. They often take that recognition and share it with their family, friends, coach, co-workers and local media.

The recognition not only helps educate non-swimmers about the swimmer, but also about our sport.

Many will argue that such swims should not even be called a record (national or course). I can understand their opinion, but I would rather elevate the swimmer and their efforts to something more grand and publicly eye-catching.

For the publicity. For the attention.

Now, remember I said almost*. I can think of two possible “world records” in open water swimming. But only two.

  1. Speed records, controlled course. Speed over a standard distance (5km, 10km, 25km), in a controlled environment (like a rowing basin) on a precisely measured course. Buoys measured by civilian GPS are probably not precise enough. A 10K in a rowing basin is a 10K in a rowing basin is a 10K in a rowing basin.
  2. Distance records, non-current-assisted. In my opinion, the distance records claimed over the years, e.g., Martin Strel’s river swims and Diana Nyad’s Bimini-to-Florida swim, are almost meaningless. Cool, impressive swims, but not meaningful as quantifiable “records.” Anyone can float down a river. So a distance record needs to be non-current-assisted. Or at most minimally current-assisted (similar to wind thresholds in track meets). If Jamie Patrick swims 77+ miles in Lake Michigan this summer, then I’d have no problem with him calling it a “world distance record.” Because distance is a comparable metric across different contexts.

Have I missed anything?

15 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as a “World Record” in Open Water Swimming”

  1. I agree with you on this topic….course records but not world records in OW swimming. There are too many variables for records to be given the title of “world record”. How could a distance that is assisted with a strong current be compared to another swim that isn’t. The same distances but vastly different circumstances. The title of world record may be used to feed certain egos..

  2. I disagree somewhat with your definition of World Record. The suggestion being such definition must relate to a record that can be duplicated at any location in the World, under identical conditions and if no duplication of course or conditions can be made elsewhere, the term World Record cannot apply, is false.

    Clearly any individual person in the World can create a World Record, if that person is the very first to accomplish such a performance. It is the person not the location that applies. Once we accept the performance could be undertaken by anybody within the population of the World, the first to succeed at the performance, sets a World Record.

    Swimmers may later set a course record, but these subsequent swims do not represent identical conditions, therefore a level playing field can never be duplicated, and a ‘World Record’ is somewhat compromised. Eventhough the wording is pedantic and in reality the swim is tantamount to the fastest, and therefore can justifiably be termed World Record.

    However, as the swimmer who does it first , is not compromised by having it easier or more difficult, the Record has a special value as both a World Record and a World First.

    I suggest therefore the person that achieves the performance first, can rightly be attributed the honour of establishing a World Record.

    1. Haydn, thanks for your comment. I disagree. Marathon swimming and other extreme/adventure sports have existing terminology to describe the first person to achieve a particular feat – the First. “World First,” if you like, but even that term is redundant.

      A “World Record” must be breakable – even the Guinness Book says so (see here) – and being the first person to do a swim is not a breakable record.

  3. There are a few other examples I can think of that should qualify for world record status they are:
    Duration as in, time spent in the water. Sub categories salt and fresh water.
    And perhaps some kind of ice swimming categories… Again, I would say that duration is really the only factor that I think can be reasonably compared across different locals.

    1. Duration… I decided against listing this because I think it’s sort of a frivolous category – it doesn’t necessarily even need to involve swimming. If we’re measuring pure duration, then someone could just tread water (or float down a river) for 85 hours and claim a world record (which has happened). Impressive, but I’m not sure what it says about swimming prowess.

  4. Some of us outside the US have marveled at this tendency for years: that the first time anything is done, or the fastest/longest time something is done in a particular, fixed place, it’s claimed as a world record. Technically, it’s true. Just like me swimming across my bath. You can’t challenge this record anywhere but in my bath. So, whilst I hold this record, and it makes me feel good, and secure in the knowledge that few will ever be able to break it, it means nothing. They key, as Evan says, is comparable metrics. Now, about your World Series…

      1. I should have said, too, there is another key to something being capable of being described as a world record rather than just a particular record. That is it’s capacity for transfer to and replication in other locations. Your reference to OW swims in rowing courses is apt, Evan, because those conditions are relatively constant. But you can’t replicate English Channel, or Catalina, or Cook Strait, or Manhattan conditions elsewhere, thus they can’t be world records in any meaningful way. Nothing more; nothing less.

  5. Nearly all records can be broken and therefore they are breakable. Therefore Guiness are correct. The problem is when trying to break records when conditions cannot be matched. That is why open water swimmers have talked themselves into this problem. Simply , conditions cannot be matched and therefore the English Chsnnel cannot compare to Catalina. The issue isn’t the swim itself, but the inability to match the conditions to make a fair comparison.

    I maintain that the first to make a swim, has no conditions to ensure the swim matches up to. Therefore a world record applies more fairly than many other established world records, when conditions give advantages to the next swimmer.

    If a world record applies only if it is breakable, then the first winner of an Olympic event could not ever become a world record holder because the event having never been held before, had nothing to break. The winner sets the inaugural world record despite not breaking an existing one. You don’t have to break an existing record, if one doesn’t exist but you are the first, you set the world record.

    The fact it cannot be beaten elsewhere in the world , but only on that same location , does not deny the fact. And the fact is clear, if you are the first, you are the fastest. It is therefore a world record, a course record and a world first.

    The problem only comes when people try to break it, it is breakable , but conditions have changed, therefore the next swimmer doesn’t have an equal task as the first. Open water swimmers think this is a problem. It isnt.

    There are world records for the fastest world heavyweight knockout. Such conditions can never be duplicated like they can in a purpose built indoor swming pool. Many world records have huge variables between records.

    The red herring of swimming in a bath of baked beans is silly. Yet world records exist even for that. They exist also for sitting on a pole. I remember wstching Fred Jago set a world record for Non stop walking in England through cold nights. The record eventually beaten elsewhere in the world when the weather was fab.

    Now, if you think being the fastest to swim the English Channel is less worthy of the claim to a world Record than the person who can crack the most walnuts with his forehead in 60 seconds, then you are part of the problem.

  6. Yes, I agree: Penny Lee Dean is the fastest solo swimmer across the Catalina Channel. But that is a course record, or “Catalina Channel record.” Not a “world record.” Is it possible to swim the Catalina Channel in… Ireland? Or Mozambique? No? Then it’s not a world record.

    Yes, it is a world record because anybody in the world can travel 5 miles, 20 miles, 200 miles, 2000 miles to get to the location to beat it. Just like we travel the world to other sporting locations to best existing records. The fact there is only one location for any particular channel swim in the world, or 55 (guess) locations in the UK to swim 100 metres long course, or 5000 approved athletics grounds worldwide for the 1500 metres, doesn’t mean that the lesser locations to compete reduce the standing of the event.

    The English Channel has a world record than anybody on the world can attempt to beat. For some it means a long haul flight for others it means a 5 minute walk. But the fact it cannot be duplicated elsewhere, does not reduce its claim.

    If you swim it faster than anyone else, you deserve the record as the fastest person in the world to do so. That to me sounds very like a World Record.

    1. I can almost buy the notion of an English Channel world record because it’s a widely recognized global standard of marathon swimming, even if the course cannot be replicated elsewhere. An English Channel world record would mean, basically “fastest crossing by a person irrespective of country-of-origin” — which is conceptually distinct from a world record for a 100m pool swim, which can be replicated in any of the thousands of long course pools in the world.

      But ultimately I don’t buy the notion of an English Channel world record because it can be logically extended to world record claims for Paul Ellercamp’s bathtub, which is absurd and indeed demeans our incredible sport. Isn’t there sufficient glory in claiming an “English Channel record”?

      Incidentally, do the CSA recognize CS&PF swimmer Trent Grimsey’s claim of the English Channel “world record”?

  7. its not a world record really but conditions have varied for decades in the pool…. eg: a) with swimmers b) with jammers c) with full suits d) and with “supersuits” e) with flat blocks f) with tumble turns g) with sloping blocks h) with sloping blocks and a rear foot press i) with standard water and j) salted water and k) newest variants of waters l) prior to drug testing and m) with full drug testing n) with wash reducing lanes o) with overflow pools p) with deeper pools…and in the future possibly some other change that advatages the latest swimmer…granted I dont think most past swimmers would win today anyway given all the better training conditions however these are examples of changing variables that have affected the status of world records in a pool…

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