Fran Crippen
Courtesy of: Peter H. Bick
By Steven Munatones, Swimming World correspondent, Open Water Source

BARCELONA, Spain, July 17. FINA President Dr. Julio C. Maglione presented his report to the FINA Bureau in advance of the upcoming FINA World Championships.

Among his topics to the decision-making FINA Bureau, FINA established that the maximum temperature of water for FINA-sanctioned open water swimming competitions will be 31C (87.8F). This rule follows a study carried out by the University of Otago in New Zealand that was conducted in collaboration with FINA, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Triathlon Union today.


With such endorsements from some of the most powerful and influential governing bodies on the planet, this rule will be presented at the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Congress today in Barcelona.

The FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee (TOWSC) is headed by Ronnie Wong of Hong Kong. FINA has considered, discussed, and researched this maximum water temperature rule since the untimely death of American swimming star Fran Crippen in October 2011. Its decision will undoubtedly have direct implications for conducting of open water swimming events among FINA's 202 member federations. That is, if FINA has provided its stamp of approval for open water swimming competitions to be held in water up to 31C, then this regulation gives a green light to other race directors and associations to similarly conduct competitions up to this same water temperature.

Given the same stamp of approval of this research by the International Triathlon Union, it will also be interesting to see if the ITU and its own triathlon member federations similarly adopt this same maximum water temperature rule of 31C (87.8F) for the swim legs of their sanctioned triathlons.

We are hopeful the research methodologies, findings, and recommendations issued by the University of Otago will become publicly available so the swimming, triathlon and endurance sports communities can understand the reasoning behind this maximum water temperature legislation. For all the elite, competitive, and masters swimmers who have ever competed in open water swimming competitions up to 31C, every single one of these competitors have been negatively affected by the extreme temperatures. Physiologically, it is extremely difficult and goes way beyond the maximum water temperature that FINA allows in its pool competitions (25-28C).

Putting 31C Into Perspective

To put 31C in perspective, imagine a swimming pool at 85F (29.4C). Even at 82F (27C), performances in the pool start to suffer. At those temperatures, coaches around the world constantly hear complaints that "the water is too hot" from their swimmers. Coaches use aerators and move workouts to the early morning or evening to avoid pool temperatures that are too warm as a result.

Now imagine doing 100 x 100 on an interval where you get very little rest in a pool where the water is 85F (29.4C) on a humid, cloudless day. Every swimmer knows how tough that is, especially if they only hydrate every 30 minutes like open water swimmers usually do? Any coach can easily imagine problems with heat stress among his athletes under those conditions.

Now imagine if the temperature of the pool was 87.8F (31C)...for a race. Not a workout, but a competition.

Now add to this increasingly hazardous situation the well-known fact among open water swimmers that the temperature of fresh water always feels cooler than the same temperature of salt water. That is, 80F in fresh water does not feel like 80F in salt water. The fresh water feels cooler. Flipped around, the salt water feels WARMER. That is, 80F in fresh water feels more like 82-83F in salt water depending on the amount of solar radiation.

So essentially that 87.8F in a fresh water pool feels more like 89-90F in the ocean, sea or estuary. Swimmers around the world know this.

Now imagine racing 5,000 meters or 10,000 meters or 25,000 meters in 89-90F. Pool swimming coaches would not stand for it; parents would complain; and athletes would -- out of pure physiologically necessity -- purposefully slow down and complain until the coach relented.

This is what is happening in the open water world when FINA allows competitions up to 31C.

In a few countries around the world, when a maximum water temperature is reached, the race is stopped. No questions asked. Danger identified. Danger documented. Game over. Swimmers go home. The safety of the swimmers is not breached.

In contrast with the current FINA rules, the water temperature is monitored at one-hour intervals during the race. That is, if the water temperature exceeds 31C during those one-hour intervals, the race is not stopped. The race continues. The swimmers are expected to continue racing until the next hourly temperature check. Only then is the race stopped. The safety of the swimmers - and all the safety of the swimmers around the world who will be expected to race in 31C water - must be the highest priority of any race director, coach, and governing body.

This is what Fran Crippen fought for in his all-too-short life.