By Steven Munatones, Swimming World Open Water Contributor
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on FINA's rules that allow open water swims to be conducted in water over 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
HUNTINGTON BEACH, California, October 27. THERE are innumerable risks that are inherent in open water swimming. Besides marine life such as sharks and jellyfish, swimmers are exposed to tides, winds and waves as well as extreme temperatures and boating accidents.
In recent years, 29 people have lost their lives in the sport. Deaths have included complications due to pre-existing conditions combined with extreme temperatures, boating accidents and swimming through high surf. But none of these unfortunate tragedies created more of a need to address these inherent risks than the death of Fran Crippen during an October 2010 FINA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup race in Dubai.
Crippen's death sent shockwaves through the swimming community. It was unimaginable how his fellow competitors were looking for his body on the race course as officials took two hours to find him. How could an athlete die in a race? How could his body not be found? What must be done to avert close calls or further deaths?
In addition to the Crippen family's own inquiry into the circumstances of Fran's death, both FINA and USA Swimming conducted exhaustive reviews to investigate what happened in this FINA World Cup race. The expectations on the USA Swimming-influenced Pound Commission were particularly high, with former World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound leading an esteemed group of experienced open water luminaries including Sid Cassidy, a former FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee chairman and USA Swimming national open water swimming coach; Harold Cliff, an event organizer; Dr. Scott Rodeo, the team doctor for the NFL's New York Giants and the USA Olympic Swimming Team; and Erica Rose, a former world open water swimming champion and professional marathon swimmer.
The purpose of the Commission was to create policies and procedures that would never allow a repeat of the circumstances that led to Crippen's death. Pound, a Canadian attorney and 1960 Olympian, explained the purpose of the USA Swimming-mandated investigation: “An athlete should never lose his or her life in a sport competition, but when such an incident occurs, it is the duty of the sport community to conduct a thorough and complete review of the situation and factors that may have caused or failed to prevent such a tragedy.”
Commission Leads To Changes
As a result of the inquiries and commissions, numerous rule changes were proposed and instituted by both FINA and USA Swimming. Changes included the addition of more “eyes on the athletes” and an independent safety delegate. Changes also included additional safety personnel on boats and stricter requirements on coaches accompanying athletes to FINA competitions. Without question, the changes helped elevate the level of safety at both USA Swimming-sanctioned open water events and the two FINA-sanctioned professional marathon swimming circuits: the FINA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup and the FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix (for races between 15 km — 88 km).
Both FINA and USA Swimming poured resources into these investigative efforts and sought the input of its most experienced coaches, administrators, legal staff and top athletes to develop a new level of oversight and management over its sanctioned races. Two-time FINA World Cup champion Christine Jennings and 2010 world 25km champion Alex Meyer shared their experience,s while input from American marathon swimming legend Paul Asmuth was also part of the lengthy and exhaustive process.
Open Water Undergoes Changes
Prior to the Crippen tragedy and these procedural changes, the sport of triathlon (2000 Sydney Olympics) and marathon swimming (2008 Beijing Olympics) were introduced to the Olympics. The public exposure and awareness of the two sports skyrocketed as a result. For the sport of open water swimming in particular, the numbers were exploding from its days of a niche discipline in the 20th century practiced by an isolated few. Triathletes — 1.9 million of them in the U.S. in 2011 — were also flocking to open water venues in unprecedented numbers. With more than 1,000 open water events, and more than an estimated 6,500 open water events held in 172 countries during 2012( including a marvelously staged 2012 Olympic 10km Marathon Swim) the sport of open water swimming had arrived. The blossoming had started in the afterglow of its 2008 Olympic debut in Beijing. Together with this new generation of open water swimmers and millions of other participants in the 2,000+ multi-sport events held in the U.S., the shores were being inundated with crowds suiting up with Vaseline, lanolin or neoprene.
But with so many people entering the sport, trouble was brewing under the surface.
Risk Management In The Open Water
Tragedies continue to hit both the triathlon and open water swimming communities. At the same time, race officials and safety officials were rescuing more participants who were unprepared or in distress. As a result, race directors reacted the best way they knew. Some implemented qualification swims; some required wetsuits in their races; some made available more lifeguards and more support vessels; others offered pre-race educational clinics. But the numbers of participants continue to overwhelm the available resources. In the U.S., there is an average of 256 participants per open water race. A majority of race directors will honestly admit that “eyes on every swimmer at all times” is practically impossible.
While USA Swimming and other organizations have recommended specific procedures to identify and rescue a distressed swimmer during a race, meeting these procedures are not always practically possible. While USA Swimming has hired a former professional lifeguard to oversee its open water swimming program and instituted much more stringent sanctioning requirements, a perfect safety record cannot be guaranteed in the open water world. There are simply too many inherent risks with people — even experienced swimmers — in the water watched by too few people.
But the open water swimming community understands these risks. In fact, this is part of the allure for many swimmers. Rather than a danger, risks are part of the sport. In oceans, an athlete may encounter a jellyfish, in rivers they may hit flotsam, and a lake swim may be colder than expected.
As a general principle, open water swimmers and their coaches accept a certain level of risk. They ask themselves: can you swim far enough or fast enough in water that can range in temperature and conditions? Things happen out in the open water: large coastal surf can hit the West Coast and a sudden cold wave can hit the East Coast. Rain and fog can obscure the visibility in races and the global proliferation of venomous jellyfish is always a threat. Open water swimmers deal with these sorts of conditions and possibilities.
While every death is a tragedy to the victim's family, friends and to the sport in general, every death is not necessarily reflective of poor race management. Every experienced open water swimmer knows to expect the unexpected. While swimmers adapt as they can to situations, it is the responsibility of race organizations to identify these risks, inform the swimmers, and endeavor to minimize these risks as best they can.
Sometimes, tough decisions have to be made. Sometimes, race fees must be increased or race sponsors must be found in order to pay for the increased costs of providing adequate safety. Sometimes, race times must be changed or race course layouts must be modified. Sometimes, age limits or qualification requirements are required. Each race organization comes up with its own requirements because each venue is different. Being a sport where conditions are always in flux, each race organization faces different stresses and different decisions to get safety right.
To make race organizers' responsibilities even more difficult, more and more swimmers are pushing themselves to even greater limits. The athletes are willing to go where no one else went to before. Not only are swimmers attempting greater distances, but they doing so in more extreme conditions. Some challenge themselves to see no limits. Ice swimming for longer periods. Distance swimming for longer periods. Ten-kilometer swims at a faster pace. Tougher swims performed at older ages. In the 21st century, time and money seem to be the limiting factors, not necessarily physiological or psychological barriers.
“We do not really know how much the human body can bear,” explained a former USA Swimming coach. “Look at what swimmers used to do in the 20th century … and we thought they were crazy then. Swimmers are pushing themselves past barriers in ways we never thought possible before.”
Among those delving into realms previously thought impossible are swimmers of every age group and with both genders. And the professional marathon swimmers who compete on the FINA World Cup and FINA Grand Prix circuits are among these aquatic adventurers. They tend to be young and fearless, motivated to push themselves to great lengths.
And this can be a risky formula: young, fearless athletes in extreme conditions. Without proper oversight, both young and older athletes can go beyond their physiological limits and hurt themselves in the process. While mind over matter is a mantra followed by many open water swimmers, it does lead to serious situations when taken to the extreme.
This is why safety is such a major issue in the sport of open water swimming.
Steven Munatones is a former national marathon swimming champion and coach, and can often be found on a pontoon or chase boat in many of the biggest open water swims. He is the editor and founder of The Daily News of Open Water Swimming.