Is this open water?

Mike Lewis
by Mike Lewis 5

January 06th, 2014 News, Open Water

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.

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Saying that an event held in salt water with waves creates a playing field that is not level is ridiculous. It’s like saying downhill skiing should be held on the flat because not everyone has equal access to mountains. Open water is a different sport than pool swimming. The venues for open water races should reflect that. There’s nothing wrong with open water races in lakes and other freshwater, but there has been a striking lack of diversity of venues at the Olympics and for US National Championships, and I think that has a lot to do with the success of pool swimmers who have only recently crossed over to open water. Flat, moderate temperature venues in freshwater favor pool… Read more »


That’s a great point. I was a decent distance pool swimmer, but I didn’t grow up very close to an ocean. I spent a couple of summers lifeguarding at the beach, and there were guards on staff who were from the beach who I would destroy in pool swimming, but made me look like a kid when we would do races involving swimming into waves, swimming in straight lines regardless of current, and everything else that open water swimming entails. I don’t consider the pool competitions a “more level playing field.” I was better than them in flat water, they were better than me when accounting for open water variables. That should be part of the sport. We shouldn’t be… Read more »


That was supposed to be a reply to w3t


Saw it, thanks! I was the opposite – middling pool distance swimmer who beat people I had no business beating as soon as waves and cold water were involved.


It sounds like the article is mainly stating that the US is choosing to select its open water swimmers at an event which is most like the current world events. As the discipline of Open Water Swimming grows, there will be better defined categories like salt/fresh & surf/sea. Pretty exciting stuff. Upstream/downstream would be fun too.

About Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis is a freelance commercial, sport and lifestyle photographer based in San Diego.  Mike began making photos in the early 80’s and immersed himself in all aspects of the photographic arts.  Mike’s professional career in in photography began after 12 years working within the United States Olympic movement; he …

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