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.

The death of tech suits

At long last, the minutes from the Long Distance committee at the recent USMS National Convention are available. I’ve cut and pasted the most interesting excerpts (IMO) below.

Bottom line: The era of full-body tech suits (B70 Nero Comp & similar) in USMS-sanctioned open-water events is now over. I believe this is a good thing, but I present the following without further commentary.

Well, aside from saying: From now on, my friends, you’ll have to keep your man-boobs in check the old-fashioned way!



Swimwear allowed for open water events is defined below and is not impacted by decisions of FINA, USA-Swimming or part 1 of USMS rules. It is the swimmer’s responsibility to understand the appropriate swimwear allowed at a particular event.

303.6.2 Rules for Category I swimwear for open water events

A. Swimwear shall include only a swimsuit, cap or caps (which may include those made of neoprene), and goggles. Swim caps shall be defined as head gear conforming to a traditional swim cap design and shall not extend to protect the neck and shoulders.

B. The competitor shall wear only one swimsuit in one or two pieces. All swimsuits must shall be made from textile materials. For men, the swimsuit shall not extend above the navel nor below the knees, and for women, shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, nor extend below the knees.

303.6.3 Rules for Category II swimwear for open water events

A. Swimwear that does not meet the requirements for Category I swimwear shall be considered Category II swimwear. Swimwear may include a swimsuit or wetsuit, cap or caps, goggles, arm bands, and rash guards. Nose clips, ear plugs, wristwatches and grease are also allowed.

There (should be) no running in swimming

Should swimming events involve running? Unless it’s part of a triathlon, obviously not… right?

Yet often, they do! You won’t see any running at the Olympic 10K open-water event. In Beijing, competitors started by jumping off a floating platform, and finished by slapping a floating touchpad. At sub-elite level events, though, it’s fairly common to both start and finish on a beach.

Of the six open-water events on my summer itinerary, only two – the 2-mile Cable swim in Virginia and the 6K in Colorado – have in-water starts and finishes. The rest will require negotiating a stretch of sand at some point. The Columbus Open-Water Swims start and finish on the beach.

This matters to me because I have a hip replacement and am really not supposed to run, ever. Do the few seconds I lose on a beach-start really matter in a 20, 30, or 60-minute race? Sure, it matters less in a longer race, but actually yes, it does matter.

It’s not just the time lost entering the water, but also the time lost from poor positioning. If I’m near the end of the pack off the start, I may be only 5 seconds behind the leaders right then, but by time I’ve clawed my way through the slower swimmers, I might be 20 seconds behind. It matters.

And my disadvantage is relatively minor. What would Fat Rabbit Racing (organizers of the C.O.W.S. races) say if one-legged Olympian (not just Paralympian, mind you — Olympian) Natalie du Toit showed up at their event? That she’s shit outta luck?

Granted, there are costs – financial and operational – associated with in-water finishes. But in-water starts are actually pretty simple.