Open Water Community Gets Official Rules to Govern Marathon Swims

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 6. THOUGH open water swimming has been exploding in popularity for the past few years, no stringent rules or guidelines have existed to fundamentally determine what constitutes a fair and legal marathon swim. The rules for the English Channel have become the de facto policies for every open water swim around the world, but a panel today has created an official document that spells out in certain terms what defines a legal marathon swim.

The “Rules of Marathon Swimming” were created by a four-person group belonging to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, which does not govern open water swimming in the same way FINA governs aquatic sports. The MSF, however, is a passionate and often vocal group of open water swimmers who are often the first and last word on marathon swimming events that fall outside FINA’s umbrella. On the surface, these new rules would appear to contain the same general rules that marathon swimmers have been following for decades. One statement in the document says: “The MSF believes there is a fundamental ‘spirit’ shared by the many variations on (English) Channel Rules, and it aims to codify this global spirit while remaining flexible to local adaptations.”

These rules will not supersede FINA rules for such events as the Olympics or world championships. The new rules largely appear to regulate open water swims held in waters not governed by official organizations, though it asks those local governing bodies to adhere to these rules and publicly announce any deviations.

The rules, on the surface, also appear to have been created to govern such solo swims as the one Diana Nyad achieved last September when she swam from Cuba to Florida. With the English Channel rules — no assistance, no special equipment, no touching — as the baseline, several questioned whether Nyad’s swim should be officially accepted by the global marathon swimming community. Evan Morrison, who was one of the co-authors, told Swimming World today that the swim was indeed an impetus for creating worldwide standards.

“Diana’s swim, because of its vast reach beyond the marathon swimming community and into popular culture, highlighted the need for a clear statement about the spirit of marathon swimming, and the meaning of ‘unassisted’,” Morrison wrote in an email.

“The Marathon Swimmers Federation, as the largest organization of marathon swimmers in the world, saw an opportunity to move our sport forward constructively,” he continued, “and provide easy-to-use guidelines for those who wish to undertake unassisted marathon swims anywhere in the world.”

The new rules do not offer much in the way of shocking revelations. The only things a swimmer can wear are a textile swimsuit, goggles, bathing cap, earplugs, nose clips and sunscreen or body grease. This would define Nyad’s special mask to keep her from being stung by jellyfish as “nonstandard equipment,” though it leaves the door open for it to be used if publicly declared before the swim starts.

Also in the rules is the official definition of a marathon swim, making 10 kilometers the minimum distance. The number of observers on a swim is clearly defined, and what constitutes the start and finish of a marathon swim.

Read the official Rules of Marathon Swimming