Alex Meyer’s United States of Open Water Swimming (Part 1 of 2)

by SwimSwam 5

October 09th, 2012 News, Open Water

Alex Meyer is the top American open water swimmer, having competed at the 2012 London Olympics in the open water 10km swim, finishing 10th. Since the death of his good friend Fran Crippen, Meyer has taken an active role in the growth and administration of open water swimming, seeing his task as taking up the torch of the fallen. Below, check out part 1 of 2 as Meyer breaks down his 6 big questions for the future of open water swimming, and what he learned at the US Aquatics Sports convention in Greensboro, North Carolina.

A few weeks ago I attended the United States Aquatic Sports Convention in Greensboro, NC. For those who don’t know, it is an annual event where all of the USA Swimming (USAS) committees and boards meet to discuss issues relating to the sport. It is also a social event – most of the people attending convention are not on a committee and do not necessarily have a vote in the House of Delegates. It’s an opportunity for coaches and athletes of all levels to network, share ideas and philosophies, and of course have a good time.

Convention also offers the greatest opportunity to bring up new ideas, implement change, express concerns, or otherwise have your voice heard by relatively large, attentive, and passionate audience. This is exactly what I set out to do. Before I left for Greensboro, I (@AlexMeyerSwims) tweeted six “missions” related to policies that directly affect open water swimmers of all levels and the changes that I hoped to accomplish, or at least make progress on. Below I will go into detail about each of those issues, but first, a general state of affairs:

The open water National team has made great strides in the past few years, highlighted by Haley Anderson’s silver medal performance in London, and we are looking forward to the next quadrennium with excitement. Team USA has managed to have international success in open water even with a relatively underdeveloped domestic structure for these events at home in the US. I believe that as USAS and its member LSCs continue to host more races, promote the open water events, and close the perceived gap between open water and pool swimmers, the USA will be as dominant in the open water as we are in the pool.

Recently, a number of issues have arisen that profoundly and directly impact open water swimmers in the US. I have made it my crusade to address these concerns. Here they are, in detail:

Editor’s note: This is topics 1-3; we will post topics 4-6 tomorrow.

1.       @AlexMeyerSwims: Express my concern about the safety regulations USAS has proposed to FINA that includes a 31C at 40cm max temp for 5k and up. Up until my dear friend and mentor Fran Crippen’s death during a 2010 FINA 10k World Cup, I had never once considered the notion of my own safety during a race. Honestly, no swimmer should ever have to – this is the responsibility of the host organizations, their officials, and to some extent the coaches present – the athletes’ job is to focus solely on their performance. Recently however, in the wake of Fran’s tragic and entirely premature death, it has been at the very forefront of my mind and the minds of many other athletes, especially considering FINA’s negligence and lack of concern or any real action regarding athlete safety. Other than commissioning a tenuous study (with methods worthy of skepticism) investigating the effect of different water temperatures on an athlete’s core temperature during exercise, FINA has done little to make the sport safer. At the 2011 World Championships, they hypocritically disregarded their own recommended maximum water temperature of 31°C and proceeded with the 25k events after the water rose far above that recommendation. Many of the most competitive athletes including both defending champions (myself being one of them) chose not to swim, and of the 58 athletes entered, little over half of them (62%) finished the race. This is a staggering statistic that says a lot about the unsafe nature of that race. The most likely reason for FINA’s refusal to cancel this race has nothing to do with race conditions or swimming at all. When they cancel a race, it makes FINA look bad and they lose money. Simple as that.

Part of the problem is that water temperature is being perceived by FINA as an American issue, which it clearly is not. We hope that coaches and athletes around the world will continue to speak up about this issue to dismiss that perception. The best we can do right now is set a great example for safety here in the United States (we have a maximum allowable temperature of 29.5°C) and work towards establishing high standards for other federations to adopt. At the end of this month, leaders at USAS are expected to meet with FINA officials to discuss safety and hopefully make some progress in that area.

USAS has drafted new safety legislation that was almost completely adopted by FINA, all except for a hard a fast rule of a 31°C maximum temperature for 5k and up – which I still believe is too high. I imagine FINA is waiting on the results of their study before they make a ruling on this. As an experienced open water swimmer myself, I believe that there should be a narrower range of allowable temperatures the longer the race is. Shorter races can be held in more extreme temperatures because the body has to tolerate the stress for a shorter period of time.

An important thing to remember is that water temperature is only one aspect of open water safety. There are many other factors to be considered, most importantly having enough eyes on the swimmers and adequate coverage by safety craft. It is also necessary to have a Safety Monitor that is independent from the sanctioning organization (FINA, USAS etc.) and has the authority to cancel or postpone a race. Currently, the Safety Monitor at FINA-sanctioned races is a member of a FINA committee, which is an appointed position. If this committee member wishes to keep their position, they need to make their superiors happy. Cancelling races, even if they are unsafe, does not make their superiors happy. This is a dangerous conflict of interest and is precisely the reason why we need a Safety Monitor who is unbiased, trustworthy, knowledgeable, reliable, and not a member of FINA.

I am overall satisfied with the direction in which many aspects of safety are going, though the temperature and safety monitor issues continue to be very contentious and political.

2.       @AlexMeyerSwims: Convince National Team admins to retain Paul Asmuth as a paid consultant. He is a legendary OW swimmer and coach and we need his leadership. Paul has been a consultant to the open water National Team since 2005 and has been one of our greatest team leaders ever since. He completely turned the team around when he first started in his position and has helped us to grow closer as a team ever since – through victory, defeat, and tragedy. A legendary Hall of Fame marathon swimmer in his own right, he has imparted his wisdom on the National Team for the past seven years, and I can personally attest that I have learned more about race strategy from Paul than anyone else in my life. He is the co-recipient, along with my personal coach Tim Murphy, of USA Swimming’s 2012 Glen S. Hummer Award for his contributions to the sport. 

The National Team division made the decision to not renew any of the “independent contracts” for the four paid consultants to the National Team – one of them was Paul, who has served the National Team year-round in addition to holding a full-time job in northern California. Though USAS will offer to have Paul come to major camps and competitions at their expense and remain a member of the Open Water Steering Committee, without being a paid consultant, Paul will be unable to take the time out of his already busy life to provide his services, leaving the National Team without the mentor and leader we need. USAS has essentially asked Paul to continue to do the same thing, but for free.

Last spring USAS created a new position of Open Water Program Manager to make logistical things run more smoothly, and hired a young man who has done a very good job. However, this person has never competed in any real open water races, and therefore does not have the knowledge, wisdom, and vision of the sport that Paul does. National Team Director Frank Busch seems to think that this singular person is going to be in charge of everything regarding open water, and I think this is a dangerous, naïve proposition. Several National Team athletes have made their voices heard in favor of Paul, but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears as nobody at USAS seems willing to budge on this issue.

Let me be absolutely clear – Paul has in no way asked for his consultant position back or held a grudge. This is my brief attempt to explain to you how important he is to the open water team, and why I think his position should be reinstated.

3.       @AlexMeyerSwims: Change the new policy that makes it logistically difficult and expensive for National Team athletes to attend FINA World Cups. At the beginning of September, the Open Water Program Manager sent an email to all open water National Team athletes with a new policy regarding FINA 10k World Cup races. Until that point USAS had a generous reimbursement policy compared to other countries’ swimming federations, which we are very grateful for. We were reimbursed up to $1000 for travel expenses per World Cup – sometimes this would cover all expenses, sometimes not entirely. Additionally the OW Program Manager would attend every World Cup event where a National Team athlete was present for support.

Due to a “reinterpretation” of an existing FINA rule, USAS created a new policy (as per FINA’s clarification of the rule) that every athlete needs to bring their own different coach to each World Cup, a 1:1 coach to swimmer ratio, and they would not be provided any additional reimbursement to do so. An immediate (and appropriate) outcry by athletes and coaches ensued. This new policy was a huge financial burden on the athletes and coaches and combined with the limited availability of our coaches, especially during the college season, this would have resulted in a huge drop in participation by National Team athletes, which is exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing to promote our sport. Not to mention, having six coaches for six athletes is completely ludicrous overkill and clutter.

USAS’s commendable reaction was just as swift – only days later, the Board of Directors approved a proposal to increase the World Cup travel budget by a substantial amount to cover the costs of coaches to attend. Also, over several days the already vaguely written FINA World Cup rule (5.1) was again reinterpreted to mean that one coach could represent one male and one female swimmer, which definitely helps the situation. USAS said they would prepare a list of coaches willing to be “on call” to attend World Cups to reduce the burden on the athlete to find someone to be their coach if their home coach cannot attend. This issue was for the most part resolved by the end of convention.

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10 years ago

Swimmers suck it up everyday in the pool and do work, now it’s FINA’s turn to suck it up and keep the athletes safe while we compete.

Reply to  1650swimmer
10 years ago

Exactly right!

10 years ago

Swimmers suck it up everyday in the pool and do work, no it’s FINA’s turn to suck it up and keep the athletes safe while we compete.

Geoff Meyer
10 years ago

Love the article and look forward to part two. Alex is truly doing an amazing job representing the USA Open Water community and it makes me so happy to see how involved he has stayed with the fight to make these races safer.
Agree 100% with Mr. Crippen’s comments above.

Pete Crippen
10 years ago

As Fran’s Dad, I want to congratulate Alex on a marvelous job both in and out of the water, a wonderful swim in London and a strong presence at the Greensboro convention. The Crippens’ and the foundation that honors Fran strongly support Alex. We believe that Alex is on the right path with all the safety issues and strongly urge USA swimming to retain Paul Asmuth as an adviser to the team. we believe. that the water temperature controversy should be no controversy at all. Water temp should be no higher than 29.5 and no lower than 18. If Fina want a temp of 31 it is for one reason only.MONEY