FINA World Championships, Open Water: “We” Need to Fix Open Water Swimming

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Guest editorial by John Dussliere, Santa Barbara Swim Club

CLOVIS, California, July 22. AS I write this, there are athletes collapsing and being pulled from the water in China at the World Championships 25k race. There are spectators acting as lifeguards. There are boats being dispatched to rescue competitors. There are also a few tears running down my face.

How have we let this get to this extreme? I have taken a pretty strong stand today via Twitter while I am coaching my own team at the sectional championships in Clovis, Calif. I want to thank my swimmers first and foremost for supporting this "volunteer" sector of my life as it has pulled me away from them from time to time.

Next, I must report that everything I write in this piece is an opinion that is mine and mine only, and does not reflect my involvement or the opinions of the U.S. Olympic International Operations Committee, the Open Water Steering committee, and the newly-formed Open Water Development Committee, all of which I am an active member.

Now to the business of the day: I made a promise to some very special people last October [when Fran Crippen died] that I would never tire in my efforts to never see another death in Elite International Open Water Racing. Today, I decided to no longer work in the background on this issue.

I began to get information during the past few days on what the real temperatures have been throughout the competition in China. I found that everyone's thermometer was coming up with different numbers.

In my experience, this has always been the case. The athletes' thermometers are usually pretty accurate, but favor getting out of practice; the coaches' thermometers are usually less extreme than the athletes on the hot or cold side. Then when the official race temperature is published, it always seems to fall into the safe zone. Hmmmmm.

So, this competition is no different from so many others. At times, the thermometer game is just that, a game. But now things are different. Extreme water temperature issues have become a matter of life or death. It does not matter what is official or what is anecdotal. We have once and for all proven that we, humans, cannot be trusted in this matter of reporting temperature. The trust is gone.

So, where do we turn? We presently have a couple studies on what temperature we can handle as humans. We also have a responsibility to each other to not put each other in harm's way. I was relieved to see that an old friend from 2006-08 Marcel Wouda, coach of the Dutch Olympic Champion, pulled his swimmers the day before the race. Then, I saw a report that Thomas Lurz of Germany, a guy that has more open water gold than a 49ers creek, pulled himself from the race yesterday as well.

Then, I started probing to see what our USA athletes were doing. No word, and I have good sources! I wanted them to make the right decision as I saw it and pull out. I was then relieved to hear that Alex [Meyer] and Haley [Anderson] pulled out, then very concerned that Claire [Thompson] was going to swim.

With some deeper thought, I was beginning to question why should these athletes and coaches be posed with this decision? That's not right! This decision should be made when the race committee sees the potential for the water temp to get into that high side danger zone.

Thinking even further: should this ever be a judgment call? This should be a clear rule. The best athletes in the sport at any given time know when something is not right or safe. As do their coaches. As do our officials. But the athletes, coaches and officials still do not have a definitive rule when it comes to temperature.

I don't want to offer that the results should have an asterisk this year, but I cannot believe that the results would be the same if the race had all of its original entrants and it were contested in a body of water that posed no temperature threat to its participants.

I have no scientific basis for pressing for a high temperature rule of 28 degrees Celsius, but when the athletes want this temperature, and the top coaches (of which I had an athlete in the Beijing Games) want this temperature; I tend to think it has value. There are lots of air and water temperature combo suggestions out there, but why not have a simple rule stating the high temperature may not exceed 28 degrees at any time during a FINA or USA Swimming sanctioned event?

I witnessed the effects of the cold water first hand in Melbourne 2007 Worlds after the 25k when my athlete did not recognize me or even remember I was there after the finish as he was being held up in the shower as the doc was trying to raise his core temperature.

I also stood in the church at a funeral of the greatest of young men last November. I have witnessed the effects of both "suggested" safe environments. We are wrong. Let's admit to being wrong.

Let's go forward together and not allow our athletes and coaches to be put in such a horrible position that could put them in harm's way or rob them the opportunity to compete when others might. Let's once and for all set a safe standard of 28 degrees Celsius and get back to the human capacity to compete, not survive. Let's never let a competition need an asterisk next to its results. If you think there is a "they" out there, you are mistaken. It is "we" that can bring this rule about.

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