Competition Pools Could Have New Depth Standards for Racing Starts

Feature by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 9. THE Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending a minimum pool depth of 6 feet 7 inches for conducting racing starts, a proposal that would affect future pool construction and not existing pools.

The CDC's recommendation, part of the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), is tougher than what is currently in place for every swimming federation in the United States, from the local to national level. USA Swimming and the NCAA list 4 feet as the minimum pool depth for executing racing starts at non-championship meets. The National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association, the national federation for high school swimming, also sets 4 feet as their minimum requirement. Globally, FINA requires a minimum depth of 6 feet 7 inches for its sanctioned meets.

The CDC released the MAHC in July and is currently in the process of soliciting public comments on certain modules of the code. Though the recommendation about minimum pool depth for racing starts only takes up one sentence in the 91-page Facility Design and Construction Module, it is the one that has gained the most attention, as many believe it could affect hundreds — maybe thousands — of pools used for competition across the country.

Michael Beach, one of the authors of the MAHC, said the document “is not a mandate.” The CDC was asked by public health officials at the state and local levels to create a model for future legislation, Beach said, and it would not affect existing pools. If city and state legislators decide to use the MAHC as a guide for new laws concerning aquatic facility construction, it would only apply to pools built after the law is in effect, unless they made special stipulations in their bill proposals that would create grandfather clauses. It would also not require national federations such as USA Swimming to change their minimum depth requirements.

“The technical committee decided based on data that this would be a safer depth, remembering that pools also get used by people who aren't on swimming teams,” Beach said. “There's no intent to shut anything down here, only a plan to improve safety.”

The United States does not currently have a national standard for pool construction, and no guidelines currently exist for pool architects to follow when designing new pools. Policies are created at the state level, and some states do not have any policies in place, hence the call for the MAHC, Beach said.

In USA Swimming's rules and regulations, the organization requires racing starts to be taught in an area of the pool that is at least 6 feet deep. Pools for national championships, interestingly, require a minimum depth of 6 feet 7 inches. In listing its minimum depth of 4 feet for all other meets, USA Swimming defers to local and state statutes for the final word on minimum pool depth that is “in conflict” with USA Swimming's rules.

When contacted by Swimming World for comment on the CDC recommendations, USA Swimming replied with the following statement:

“It would be premature for USA Swimming to comment on the Centers for Disease Control's proposed wording of the MAHC related to racing starts and pool depth. Our organization is currently working with other national aquatic organizations and the CDC to discuss possible re-writes of the code. Safety for all swimmers is our No. 1 priority and we look forward to working with the CDC in a cooperative manner on this topic.”

Counsilman-Hunsaker has designed some of the country's most prestigious pools, including the site for the 1996 Olympics. In an effort to stay ahead of the current industry standard, the aquatics design industry has anticipated future changes by designing deeper pools. Scot Hunsaker, the company's CEO, praises the efforts of the MAHC, but is concerned about “unintended consequences” if it becomes the new industry standard.

“It's the coach that, in the end, will come under fire for allowing racing starts in a pool that is shallower than (6 feet 7 inches),” he said. “Without a clear definition of the industry standard for all facilities, new and old, coaches, operators and owners will be making site-specific decisions without clear direction.”

This could cause pool owners, whether public or private, to hunt for funds to rebuild the pool, conforming to a code that they were not required to submit to as a way to minimize risk. Steve Crocker, an engineer at Counsilman-Hunsaker and a former 50 freestyle world record holder, said those that cannot find the budget to retrofit the pool might find closing their only alternative.

“For the sport of swimming, it could be very harmful,” Crocker said.

Many question the reasoning behind the CDC's choice of 6 feet 7 inches as the ideal depth for racing starts. Joel Stager, the director of the Counsilman Center for Swimming Science, has been at the lead of conducting numerous studies regarding understanding the risks racing starts represent to swimmers of all ages and levels of expertise. He and his team (Andrew Cornett, Josh White and Brian Wright) examined the velocity of swimmers at maximum head depth while executing racing starts under a variety of experimental conditions in order to derive varying conclusions. In the nine research papers Stager has published on the topic in the International Journal of Aquatic Research, none makes a definitive statement on the “ideal depth” for racing starts, but cites the chance for “catastrophic injury” at just about every depth up to 9 feet.

Stager said regulating pool depth is not the true answer if administrators and lawmakers are looking to reduce or eliminate the chance of injury. It's up to USA Swimming, the Red Cross and ASCA, he said, to ensure that swimmers and coaches have the proper education and training to, at the very least, reduce the chance of serious injury through focused education and improved athlete certification. Teaching racing starts using a reputable learning progression such as that offered by the Red Cross (from the side of the pool instead of from the starting block) is one way for coaches to teach proper execution, Stager said.

Stager believes the CDC came to their current proposed safe depth without enough data, and hopes to work with the CDC to back up their claims of appropriate pool depth in the MAHC, just as he is working with USA Swimming on making teaching racing starts safer.

“The reality is that there are very few catastrophic injuries occurring in competitive swimming due to dives from a block,” Stager said. “If there was one, then one accident is one too many. But most pool accidents occur in private pools, and the majority occur when the individual is impaired in some way. It may be then, that we are trying to prevent events that are very, very rare without having the fundamental data to support the CDC's conclusions.

“Regulatory decisions should be based on data,” he said. “We have made it our mission at the Counsilman Center to provide empirical data so there are logical and rational reasons to support these new mandates.”

Full text of Facility Design and Contruction Module of Model Aquatic Health Code (information regarding minimum pool depth for racing starts is on page 49)

Link to information on submitting public comments on Model Aquatic Health Code