Later yesterday, after the discussions about what to do with qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Open, the meeting of the USA Swimming Open Water Steering Committee began, with a slew of important information being released.
First, some documents. The first attached below is the Steering Committee Agenda, which gives a general outline of the meeting. The second is a layout of USA Swimming’s Future Strategies to expand open water swimming in the United States.
There’s a lot to cover in there, so to stay organized, I’ll break this into sections of conversation.
2012 Open Water Nationals
The date and location of the 2012 U.S. Open Water National Championships has been released – they will be held from April 27-29 in Miramar Lake in Fort Myers, Florida. This meet will also serve, on the women’s side, as the qualification for the Olympic Qualification Event that will take place in Setubal, Portugal on June 9th.
For a full recap of the Olympic qualifying scenarios, check out our preview for the USC women’s team. We ran it down there because USC junior Haley Anderson is one of the leading candidates to make the Olympic Team in that 10k. With NCAA’s coming roughly 6 weeks before Open Water Nationals, that should give Anderson time to reload after the college season is over. The USA will send two athletes to the Olympic qualifying meet, with only the top finisher from each country who places in the top 10 (possibly top 15, depending on what continents the top 10 come from) earning a spot in London.
Alex Meyer, by way of his 4th place finish at the World Championships in the 10k, took the only American open water spot for the gentlemen already.
Open Water Swimming at Future Meets
In the future, USA Swimming will look to expand the offerings at the Pan American Games and the Pan Pacific Championships to mirror those held at the World Championships: 5k, 10k, 25k, and a 5k Team Time Trial. Currently, only a 10k is held at those meets.
Also interesting, is that it appears as though all open water venues in Spain during the 2013 World Championships will be too warm in Spain to hold the Open Water section there. This means that, for the first time, the Open Water discipline will be held separately from the rest of the World Championships (most likely in Canada). This could affect certain athletes who are entered in both open water competition and pool competition, as they will have to make the cross-Atlantic flight and adjust to their new settings in a very short time-frame. It’s possible that, to accommodate, FINA will rework the World Championship schedule to make the Open Water events very early, and maybe even move the distance freestyles later in the meet.
There was a lot of anger, especially in the United States, surrounding the temperatures at which some of the open water races in Shanghai were held (notably the 25k, where three Americans pulled out because of the heat). That meet was almost a sunk-ship by the time the new rules were in place, and it’s good to see an indication that FINA is taking their own rules seriously going forward for meets where they have ample time to analyze the open water situation and prepare accordingly. This is also a positive, because this will break the precedent and prevent the broader World Championships from being limited to only cities that have appropriately-temp’ed open water venues, which can be tough given the narrow range of acceptability.
FINA Chimes In
A good amount of time in the meeting was spent with FINA VP Dale Neuberger and Frank Busch discussing proper procedures for dealing with FINA and how to have changes made at the FINA level. The tone wasn’t one of “scolding,” but given the unique situations that we’ve gone through in the past year with the changes to the rules in open water safety, it was important to discuss how these decisions are made within FINA so that the process can be as constructive as possible.
There was a ton of time spent on the implementation of the new safety measures. In themselves, the race-specific safety regulations were not overly complicated, but this was an important meeting with regard to the structure and controls of the new rules. This control is the backbone of the system, because even with the rules about temperatures and numbers of observers and lifeguards, human nature could lead to many of them being written off in the name of convenience and complacency. Open Water swimming is still the “wild west” of our sport, and these new controls are establishing an authority to enforce the new laws (think John Wayne’s sheriff role in an old Western film), and so this was a good opportunity for all to hear about those details.
The big detail that coaches were made aware of is that now, for the first time, there is an Open Water Sanctions form that LSC’s must fill out prior to holding an open water meet. This seemingly obvious move is an important one, because it is hard for USA Swimming to enforce their rules in races that they don’t know about.
Though a lot of the time was spent on administrative and safety topics as above, it was good to see that there was plenty of discussion about the actual competitive aspects of the sport that seem to be often overlooked. USA Swimming is making a concerted effort to improve their level in open water swimming, because as compared to our pool swimming, we lag far behind in the oceans, lakes, and rivers. The leaders of the meeting identified Russia, Germany, and Italy as the fore-runners in commitment to open water swimming.
Specifically, it was pointed out that there is only a tiny population of American swimmers who have extensive racing experience in open water, which seems to be a very important factor in winning these races (which are more race-strategy oriented than you usually see in pool swimming). Specifically, it was pointed out that LEN (the governing body of European swimming) hosts over 30 races every year to compete in beyond the normal schedule of the FINA World Cup, World Championships, National Championships, etc.
Expanded Domestic Schedule
There are a decent amount of open water races in the United States, but they are generally populated by amateur open water enthusiasts. USA Swimming would like to develop a formal, professionally-oriented series of open water racing built around existing races in Florida, including the Fran Crippen SwimSafe.
They’ve also recognized the fact that there are few opportunities and incentives for sub-elite athletes to move into the sport. There is a push to increase opportunities for youth swimmers in the sport with LSC Championships and Age Group National Championships (similar to the Sectionals meets held in the pool). The US also plans to begin sending teams to Youth Open Water International events, including the 2012 FINA Youth World Championships in Welland, Canada which are the first of their kind.
They would also like to attract more international open water swimmers to American events, specifically those races at the National Championships without qualifying implications. If they can get experienced international swimmers here, it would open up the learning opportunities for our own athletes.
Attract with Safety
An area where USA Swimming thinks they can really make headway into the international arena is by running the safest races in the world. Their immediate goal is to become the go-to location in both the Americas and the Pan Pacific region for open water competition (that title probably goes to Canada at present). They see their ability and resources to create a totally safe competition environment will be a huge asset in raising the international-profile of American open water swimming.
Camps and Clinics
USA Swimming views the pool-swimming team and the open-water-swimming teams as one in the same, and they intend to begin to expand the amount of resources and ideas they use on increase the exchange between the two. For one, they will implement programs to attract pool swimmers and retain open water swimmers. This includes more development camps for swimmers and coaches to increase the spread of knowledge and possibly tweaking the USA Swimming Athlete Partnership Agreement to make the potential of earning a stipend in open water enticing to more athletes.
Conclusions – Personal Obvservations
Open water swimming has really gained steam over the past year. With all of the increased attention put on the sport by the safety declarations, people are beginning to take interest in it. The challenge here is that the new safety regulations increase the financial and administrative burden on the organization and its members.
What’s sort of being danced around is what this all of this means: USA Swimming needs to make a concerted effort to increase the participation and visibility of the positive, competitive aspects of the sport to support the new safety initiatives. Most of the focus has been on the negative aspects of open water swimming, and that momentum needs to be redirected into the positive aspects. Sports aren’t all about money, nor should they be, but the more money that open water swimming attracts, the more money that can be poured into research, equipment, and people to make the sport safe.