So let’s talk about open water swimming. Not about the safety, not about one race, but the sporting of the sport.
Around the world, open water administration has been sort of placed under the tutlage of pool swimming organizations. This includes national organizations (like USA Swimming, that considers open water and pool swimmers to be one team), and teams, where 1500 swimmers might train with 10km swimmers. At a fledgling level, and for the sake of simplicity, this makes sense. The elite levels of the open water sport aren’t popular enough to be able to support a free-standing infrastructure.
But there seems to have been a downside of this. The aquatic community seems to have largely tried to squeeze the sport of open water swimming into the same model that we use for pool swimming. That is to say, swimmers are to push themselves to maximum training all year, break their bodies down, and then try and peak for one race every 6 months.
But maybe this isn’t the right model to grow open water swimming, both in attracting competitors and spectators. I propose a different layout for open water swimming that I will call the “NASCAR model.”
Let’s think about open water swimming, and its similarities to NASCAR (aka auto racing). You have a sport that takes several hours to complete. Throughout those hours, the tactical competition is as important as the purely physiological output of energy. There are refueling stops (water, food stations), there is bumping and grinding, and you have effectively two hours to put yourself into the best position to cross the finish line first in a mad dash. The races are swum in several laps that, to a casual observer, can be kind of dull, but to the better-trained eye, every pass and position is crucially important. Times aren’t that important as a benchmark (certainly nowhere near as important as they are in pool swimming), but positioning is.
Every race course has it’s own uniqueness and challenges. Some are done in rivers, some are done in lakes or tidal oceans, some are done in wamer water, some in cooler water. Each course has it’s own advantages and disadvantages that can benefit or hurt certain competitors.
In fact, the more I think about it, open water swimming sounds exactly like NASCAR, only it’s a whole lot cheaper to get into.
What if we take away the precise 5km, 10km, 25km races from open water swimming. Very few athlets can dare attempt all of the distances in a single race anyways. What if we make it into a NASCAR-style “series,” where the lengths and types of courses vary, and we make the mission to find the best “open water swimmer” rather than the best 5km lake swimmer, or 10km river swimmer?
The FINA open water 10km series would be an excellent basis for this transformation. Award points for each race, and at the end have a “chase for the cup,” where you have three races that only the top 10 or 15 swimmers in the standings, the most elite of the competition, will be invited to. Let them duke it out for ultimate glory with only the true masters of the sport being eligible.
You could even award check-point bonuses, much like the “lap leader” bonuses that are seen in NASCAR.
The comparison isn’t perfect. After all, NASCAR’s vehicles, with enough shop-work, can perform as well in the first race as they do in the last.
But still, I think that this overhaul could bring a level of excitement to open water swimming that organizers thus far have been unable to capture more than once a year (and even then, barely). There is a whole lot of money available to open water swimmers, but nobody aside from the Germans seem interested in taking it. In the 7 races of the FINA 10km Marathon World Cup Series, there is a total of $240,000 in prize money available in addition to covering all local expense aside from air-fare for a huge majority of participating athletes.
Yet very few of the best open water swimmers participate in the competitions, and I think that it’s because they are trying to force themselves into the pool-swimming model. They are concerned that travelling and competing in these big races will interrupt training too much.
It’s all going to come down to attitude. There seems to be a reluctance by open water swimmers to make a clean break from pool swimming. They aren’t sure how far open water competition is going to go, and how long they can afford to chase it. Everybody wants to have the relatively-high visibility of pool competition to fall back on, and to fully embrace my proposal, they’re really going to have to let go of that and develop an entire training methodology around the “series” approach. If they can do that though, it has a chance. Swimmers can’t see the series as just more practice ahead of the World Championships, they have to see it as the World Championship.
Perhaps it could be good to give it a test-run in 2014, where there’s not a whole lot to risk (only continental meets, rather than World or Olympic Championships).
Still not convinced that swim fans can be engaged in a mentality where every meet matters? NASCAR has over $3 billion in annual revenue. That fact alone seems to me as though it would make this worth a try.