The “Freshies” – My 10 favorite open-water happenings of 2011

End-of-year list-making: It’s not just for music aficionados, film buffs, and the New York Times Book Review. Why not open water swimmers, too?

So, here are my 10 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (“happenings” because they’re not all swims).

The list is, admittedly, U.S.-centric – America is where I live and what I pay the closest attention to. While I greatly admire (for example) Nejib Belhedi’s 1400K Swim Across Tunisia, I have no unique insights to add to what others have already said. Perhaps Donal or somebody can make an international list.

The list also reflects my own personal biases. I readily admit, I couldn’t care less about “stunts” in which the promotional efforts are more impressive than the swim itself. Sorry, but I find such things distasteful and think they degrade our sport.

With that in mind, here are the winners of the inaugural “freshies” (in no particular order):

Rob Dumouchel: New Year’s Day Polar Bear 10K.

6 miles through sharky 53F (11.6C) ocean, from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach, CA. Quite possibly, the northern hemisphere’s first marathon swim of 2011. Long live the adventure beard!

David Barra & Rondi Davies: 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

A 120-mile expedition stage swim from Catskill, NY to the Big Apple. Earned a feature in the New York Times while still seeming under-promoted. A surprising omission from the WOWSA nominations.

Jen Schumacher: Mt. Whitney & Lake Tahoe Back-to-Back.

Day 1: Climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505ft / 4,421m). Day 2: Swim across Lake Tahoe length-wise (21 miles at 6,225 ft elevation). A lung-busting feat of cross-training. A tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers.

Forrest Nelson: Catalina Circumnavigation.

Forrest doesn’t call the L.A. Times. He doesn’t hire a camera crew to film a made-for-TV special. Forrest lets his swimming do the talking. The most impressive marathon swim of 2011 by someone not named Penny Palfrey.

  1. Roger Allsopp: English Channel at age 65.
  2. Pat Gallant-Charette: Catalina Channel at age 60.
  3. Elizabeth Fry: Double crossing of the English Channel at age 52.

Three heroic swims, three new age records.

NYC Swim: A re-written record book. The first double-Ederle swim, by Elizabeth Fry (and along the way, new one-way records in each direction).
Then, re-broken one-way Ederle records, by Lance Ogren and myself.
Best of all: Rondi Davies’ and Ollie Wilkinson’s incredible MIMS match race, with both swimmers breaking Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary 16-year old round-Manhattan record.
Morty Berger isn’t someone who seeks out attention, but I’ll just go ahead and say: He deserves a lot of the credit for these record-breaking swims.

Penny Palfrey: Cayman Islands Swim. If this wasn’t the greatest feat of endurance swimming in history, it’s second only to the English Channel triple-crossings (Jon Erikson, Alison Streeter, & Philip Rush).

Petar Stoychev. Not a terribly original choice, but you can’t under-sing this guy’s praises. Petar is, it would seem, immune to water temperature. He already holds the fastest English Channel crossing (6 hr, 57 min). This year, he won the FINA 25K world championship in 32C (90F) water. He has won the FINA Grand Prix circuit 10 years in a row, and is still going strong at age 34. At some point soon, he will probably be acknowledged as the greatest open water swimmer…ever.

USA Swimming 10K Open-Water National Championships. Rough-water swimming at its finest – and the most exciting open-water race I’ve ever seen. For 9,800m, Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, Arthur Frayler, and Mark Warkentin battled it out in insanely choppy conditions. Swimmers were colliding with each other from opposite directions on a rectangular course. Alex Meyer slipped in for the win, to qualify for World Championships (and eventually, London). Here’s a video.

State of California: Shark fin ban. Because shark-finning is barbaric and shameful. Sometimes, government can make a difference.

For what it’s worth, I endorse the following nominees for the WOWSA awards:

  • Man of the Year: Simon Griffiths (publisher of the new H20pen Magazine)
  • Woman of the Year: Penny Palfrey
    • Note: Penny is listed in both this category and the “performance of the year” category. As I predicted, she is splitting her own vote.
  • Performance of the Year: Forrest Nelson
    • Need another reason to vote for Forrest? I haven’t gotten a single email or Facebook post from him, begging for my vote.

Lessons in pool etiquette: Masters edition

Rob and Donal have already said what needs to be said about lap swimming etiquette – and with great style, I might add.

What I’d add to the discussion is this: The importance of etiquette is not limited to lap swimming! It’s not just the noodlers and resolutionistas. You might think Masters swimmers would pick up the basics of pool etiquette pretty quickly. It’s tougher to get away with being oblivious and/or rude in a team environment. You might even think more experienced Masters swimmers – those who, by virtue of their proficiency, have obviously been swimming for many years – would be least likely to offend.

Which leads me to a funny story. On my Masters squad, we recently had a new person join, who just moved from out of town. We’ll call him/her “Pat.” Pat is an excellent swimmer – most likely, (s)he once competed at the college level. Nonetheless, here I am, writing this post…

With a tip of the hat to Bill M., here are five New Rules of Etiquette in Masters swimming:

  1. When you join a new Masters team, join the lane you can keep up with… without equipment. Do not join the lane you “aspire” to swim in, but can only make the intervals with the assistance of gigantic flippers.
  2. If, on your previous team, everyone used gigantic flippers on all the main sets, do not assume that on your new team everyone will also use gigantic flippers on all the main sets – and that therefore, it is still OK for you to use gigantic flippers on all the main sets.
  3. Do not leave five seconds apart when everyone else is leaving ten seconds apart. Especially in a long-course pool with only three people per lane.
  4. When politely asked to leave ten seconds apart, do not petulantly ask at the next break, “Is it a crime to leave five seconds apart?”
  5. When it is explained that, “Yes, sometimes people get annoyed when someone pushes off right on their feet in a long-course pool with plenty of space” — do not, in response, say, “Well, I like chasing after bubbles – it makes me go faster.” Um, no. See, here’s the thing, Pat: It’s not about you.

Actually, that’s a pretty good rule to live by when swimming with a team: It’s not about you. 

Rob‘s guidelines for lap swimming etiquette boiled down to: Don’t be a dick. 

Donal‘s guidelines boiled down to: Be aware of what is going on around you.

To these I would add:

When you join a new team, pay close attention to the prevailing norms. Everywhere is different. What is normal in one place might be unbearably annoying in another. It’s your responsibility to figure that out – not your teammates’.

The ethic of self-navigation

Sometimes I think mild derangement might be a prerequisite for marathon swimming. Perhaps “derangement” is a bit strong; so I’ll say: In the world’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and bays, you meet a lot of offbeat folks. And I mean this in the best possible way! These are my favorite sorts of people.

So I feel nothing but respect and admiration when I come across someone who makes me seem downright conventional. Case in point: the comments thread on my original “wetsuits in marathon swimming” post. Here’s the anonymous, cryptic comment that gave rise to a fascinating discussion:

I look forward to the era when channel swimmers are forbidden to use the escort boat to block winds and settle chop, and when they do their own real-time navigation, swimming in out front.

I initially read this as snark from a wetsuit fan… but it turns out this person was quite serious! And not necessarily a “fan” of wetsuits. What (s)he was describing – and further explained in subsequent comments – was an ethic of self-navigation.

According to this view, a truly “unaided” swim eschews not just wetsuits, but also the navigational assistance of the escort boat. With enough knowledge and experience, a swimmer is capable of navigating him/herself across a channel – by monitoring the location of the sun/moon, and the direction of wind, swells, and chop. Therefore, the GPS navigation used in modern channel swims constitutes an artificial aid, and is equivalent to the black line on the bottom of a pool. Moreover, self-navigation lends a “strong sense of place,” given how much closer attention a swimmer must pay to her surroundings. It’s a purer form of open-water adventure.

To clarify, the ethic of self-navigation doesn’t reject the use of an escort boat – just the navigational assistance of an escort boat. The swimmer can use the boat for feedings and safety (communicating with nearby vessels) – just not navigation. Thus, the escort boat must stay behind the swimmer.

I challenged the anonymous commenter on a variety of grounds, but (s)he had answers for just about everything. I thought the conversation was over a month ago when I said, basically, “While I respect the ethic of self-navigation as a noble ideal, I don’t think it’s practical, and the existing ‘channel rules’ do a pretty good job of rewarding things we care about – like swimming skill, training, and mental fortitude.”

A few days ago Anonymous finally responded – addressing my misgivings but also going much further, grappling with several fundamental issues in marathon swimming. At 1,069 words, the comment is better linked to than copy-and-pasted, so here it is. It’s well worth your time.

I’m grateful to Anonymous for taking the time to engage with me on this. While I may not take up self-navigation anytime soon, (s)he has changed how I think about marathon swimming.

I love my readers.

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?

Continue reading “A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)”

Follow-up on wetsuits

See original post.

I think Gords makes an important point: that there’s a fine line between valuing the purity of “naked” open-water swimming, and self-righteousness. The latter alienates people, pushing them away when we should be welcoming them and trying to build our sport.

To be clear:

  • This discussion is primarily about marathon swims – which I’ll define as swims long enough to require a support craft. In practice, this usually means swims longer than 10K. Swimmers who attempt such swims are – or should be – sufficiently skilled and experienced that drowning-prevention is not a valid excuse for using a wetsuit. (Hypothermia is a separate issue.)
  • I have no problem with newcomers to open-water swimming utilizing wetsuit technology to ensure safety, to enhance comfort, and to develop confidence. I believe wetsuits encourage more people to try open-water swimming than would otherwise, and that this is positive.
  • I have no problem with wetsuits in triathlon. I’m not a triathlete myself, but they’re certainly free to run their sport however they wish.
  • I have no problem with swimmers of any ability using wetsuits in training swims, or leisure swims, to help them swim for longer in cold water than they would otherwise, or to extend the training season. I’ve done this myself – specifically, last December in Santa Barbara, with my friend Rob D. My cold-water acclimation has since improved, so I’d probably make a different decision now.
  • I have no problem with people using wetsuits in races in which wetsuits are specifically allowed (even encouraged) – such as many open-water races in the UK (including the Dart 10K, recently swum by my friend IronMike), and most open-water races in the US organized by triathletes. Again, I’ve occasionally worn a wetsuit myself in such races – including the Nite Moves swims in Santa Barbara. It’s annoying to lose to people just because they’re wearing a wetsuit and you’re not.
  • However, as I’ve said before, I believe the above policy creates an unfortunate arms-race dynamic, such that people who’d prefer not to wear wetsuits are incentivized to wear them in order to compete.
  • I also understand there are parts of the world (max water temp < 15C/59F) where significant “skin” participation is simply unrealistic. Frankly, though, if they can do it in Alaska, they can do it just about anywhere.
  • I have no problem with open-water races that offer separate divisions for wetsuits and “skins” – e.g., USMS-sanctioned events. In fact I think they’re great – they encourage participation by offering a wetsuit option, while avoiding an arms race.

What many marathon swimmers, including myself, have a problem with is people who specifically market themselves to the media as marathon “swimmers,” who claim to set records or pioneer new swims – yet who use artificial aids (such as wetsuits) during their swims.

In Scott’s words, it’s “wrong, wrong, wrong!”

On wetsuits in marathon swimming

UPDATE 9/8/2011. Please read my follow-up post.
UPDATE 9/12/2011.
Another follow-up.

What’s Wrong with Marathon Swimming” is the title of a recent op-ed/essay/rant by Scott Zornig, president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. Zornig’s piece, distributed through the SBCSA mailing list and Facebook page, has sparked some interesting discussion – but frankly, I haven’t heard many opposing voices. Shows who my friends are, I s’pose.

Three issues, basically, moved Scott to wield his poison pen:

  • Wetsuits. Specifically, the use of them during marathon swims.
  • Bootlegging – i.e., attempting a marathon swim without paying dues to the relevant governing body to have it officially observed and ratified.
  • The misuse of the media. In particular, people who use the media to promote and glorify marathon “swims” in which traditionally accepted Channel Rules are not followed (e.g., wetsuits). Especially when such people claim to be the “first” to accomplish a swim, or to have set a record.  Or really, any claim to status, of any sort.

Continue reading “On wetsuits in marathon swimming”

Must one be a Fast swimmer to be a Great swimmer?

An excerpts from an interview with Kevin Murphy, the real “King of the English Channel”:

I don’t regard myself as a great swimmer. What I’ve got is an overwhelming ability to keep going, physically and mentally; I’ve got this obsessive willpower to keep going. As a swimmer, there are lots of people who are much better than me; there are a lot of swimmers who are a lot fitter than me. But the point about what we do is… I like to say that 50% of it is willpower; 25% swimming ability; and 25% fitness. The only thing about it is, the fitter you are and the better swimmer you are, the less it hurts psychologically.

Kevin was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977 – and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2009. Among other feats, he’s completed 34 crossings of the English Channel.

And he is not a fast swimmer. (His fastest E-F crossing was 13 hours, 31 minutes).

This cuts to the heart of marathon swimming and is perhaps the most significant difference from pool swimming (in which athletes are judged only on the basis of time/speed). Marathon swimming is mostly about persistence and stubbornness, or as Murphy says, “willpower.” It’s nice to be fast, of course; but it’s a relatively minor detail. A luxury.

Kevin Murphy is not a fast swimmer. Yet he is undoubtedly a great swimmer.