Following our story last week about the USA Swimming open water nationals relocation to Lake Castaic, a few debated if racing in lakes and rowing basins constitute open water. I heard from a few folks who believe true open water racing includes currents and waves. As this aspect of our sport grows so grows certain debates. Certainly there was quite a shake up from some in the marathon swimming camp following Diana Nyad’s Cuba to Florida swim. Debate is healthy but it’s important to recognize the veracity of open water swimming accomplishments in the context where and how they are swum.
Swimming in an ocean with a beach start definitely calls upon a particular skill set which is different than starting a 5K (or longer) race from a pontoon. You have variables such as rip currents, bottom surface conditions and waves that play to some swimmers’ strengths. But this does not mean it’s better than an open water race in a lake or other more contained body of water – it means it’s different.
With the inclusion of open water swimming on the Olympic program back in 2008 it made sense that the 10k be held in the rowing basin. Logistically, much of the infrastructure needed to host an Olympic event were in place and a new venue wasn’t necessary. In 2012 the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park was ideally suited for spectators and the venue also served as the swim leg for the Triathlon event. Furthermore, given all open water swimmers aren’t groomed on the beaches of places like Sydney or Santa Monica, holding international events in venues that do not have waves and currents represents the most level playing field.
Although there are many variables that impact the outcome of an open water race, when selecting an team for international competition it makes sense to select from a venue that is similar to the championship venue (obviously this an issue of little concern to pool swimming). Since the Pan Pacific Championships are not going to be an “in and out” beach start race it makes sense to host the race at a venue such as Lake Castaic. Ideally, swimmers would have ample opportunities to train and race in conditions that emulate the championship venue.
Ocean races are very exciting for spectators and participants and it for sure takes wave knowledge and luck to come out on top. But open water swims in lakes, harbors and rowing basins are equally exciting and call upon the intelligence of the swimmers to succeed in the race. One thing is for sure, open water swimmers need to prepare for a myriad of conditions and situations that may manifest in a race – this is what makes it special. Goggle blowouts, unexpected pace changes, wind surges, temperatures and more make it one heck of a race.
If you’re looking to get into open water swimming I say ‘go for it’. But remember, safety first and enjoy the ride.