More Signs That Open Water Swimming Needs a Format Change

We at SwimSwam have strong feelings about open water swimming. We’ve dedicated a whole channel to it, and brought on Mike Lewis, one of the sport’s major players in this country, to lead our coverage.

We at SwimSwam also have strong feelings about how to grow swimming, both in the pool and in the seas. I wrote about this two years ago in presenting a model more similar to the one NASCAR uses to determine World Champions, instead of forcing the sport into the pool swimming model of a “single meet determinant”.

More signs of the need to change this single-meet format in open water swimming came at last week’s United States Aquatic Sports convention, though it was in sort of a muted, roundabout way.

Haley Anderson was awarded the convention’s Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year award, and her coach Catherine Vogt was named the Open Water Coach of the Year, as voted upon by the Open Water Committees. This is a little bit of an awkward situation, given that Anderson is not on the open water national team.

A refresher: the Open Water National Team for USA Swimming is determined strictly on the basis of the 10km swim at the Open Water National Championships, that this year were held in Castaic Lake in California. The World Championship team was selected, however, partially on the results of that 10km swim, where Anderson finished 8th and off the national team, but also partially on the results of the 5km swim, which Anderson won. She would go on to ride that win at Nationals into a World Championship gold: the United States’ only open water gold, and one of only two open water medals period (Eva Fabian took bronze in the 25km race).

With this move, the open water committee (wittingly or unwittingly) took a stab at the current status of the open water sport, where the country’s top performer in a given year did not earn a spot on the National Team.

Anderson won her award on the basis of her World Championship gold medal, and rightfully so. Nobody did enough to deserve the honor more than she did, even if her swim came in the non-Olympic race.

Anderson, fortunately, made the National Team in the 800 free in the pool. Let’s say she hadn’t, though. This would mean that the Americans’ top open water swimmer in 2013, declared the open water swimmer of the year, would not have been on the National Team, and USA Swimming would not have been supporting the swimmer who it was declared had the best year in the open water.

The open water swimmers, arguably, are at an even bigger risk of this than pool swimmers, since there’s only one race in which they can qualify for the National Team. Further, in open water swimming, athletes are less in control of their own destiny. There’s a head-to-head competition involved. An athlete can be pushed to the outside. Teammates could conspire to squeeze a certain swimmer out of the top 6. All kinds of things can happen in open water swimming that make it not conducive to the same mentalities that pool swimming has.

Of course, this is probably not a change that USA Swimming can make unilaterally. USA Swimming can’t encourage its athletes to focus on 7 or 8 different meets a year while the rest of the world is focusing on one meet and winning all of the World Championship medals.

The change, however, needs to start somewhere. FINA needs to make its open water circuit more attractive to athletes, and hope that this makes it more attractive to sponsors, and then a ‘series’ type of  world championship with some legitimacy could realistically work.

With their vote, the committee proclaimed that they don’t like the current way of selecting the National Team. The vote wasn’t a robust enough vehicle for them to voice solutions to the problem, but the solutions are out there. A patch would be to add a rider that anybody on the “operation gold” squad for the year (this could apply to the pool as well) would automatically be on the National Team.

A 30-year repair, however, would be for the open water community to start humming and buzzing about how to make Open Water bigger, better, and even more exciting.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 years ago

Yes, the open water swimmers are working and have been voicing the fact we need a different qualification procedure. For example: The Germans use 3 world cup races as their qualifiers. Or even have local races, USA Swimming is looking into that option as well.
And bias much, Coach? We don’t give medals for potential. Mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation for elite athletes.

Reply to  Mara
9 years ago

I would have to agree with Mara that Coach does seem to have a bias. Mental preparation is a huge component. I’ll take it a notch farther by asking if Haley had even swum a 10K race since the Olympics?

9 years ago


Great commentary and spot on. It would seem a simple change to make the National Team selection process based upon a set of events (e.g., if for nothing else, include the World Championships as a ‘secondary’ selection meet).

I see the comments above about the ‘spectator’ nature of the sport, but I think there are ways to make it more attractive for television, sponsors and on-land viewers. The Serpentine in London looked to be a great venue and there are plenty of venues like that around the world. Structuring courses with shorter laps (e.g., 5 x 2K, 5 x 1K loops) that stick closer to land can work. For bigger events, cameras on the lead pack (but much… Read more »

9 years ago

The two audiences being: 1) Television. Unlike running or cycling or the last two legs of a triathalon where you have a distinct face or jersey to follow, you end up with just a colored cap amidst the churning, half submerged bodies. There are usually less close up shots as well.
2) On Site Spectators. Much of the appeal of running and cycling is to be able to get quite close to the athletes. You just can’t get that close participation in OWS with land based spectators. On top of this, unless there is a bluff or high overlook viewing area, the sight lines are typically horizontal, flat and bad.

9 years ago

I used to think that open water swimming had a good chance to grow into a mass appeal spectator sport, similar to road cycle racing and marathon running. I’ve since backed off that stance, because you simply can not readily tell who is who in the water therein lowering the appeal to the two audience you are trying to attract:

Reply to  PAC12BACKER
9 years ago

Why not put numbers on the caps?

9 years ago

An unknown fact- Haley had graduation at USC the day before the 10K race at Nationals. I am sure that being on her feet and dealing with graduation activities put her at a disadvantage (while her competitors were off their feet, out of the sun, and fueling up). I know life gets in the way for many athletes on certain competitive dates, but there is probably a good chance that the reigning Olympic silver medalist would have been at least Top 6 in the 10K had she not had the graduation conflict.

Reply to  coach
9 years ago

Precisely, Coach. Anderson wasn’t the only swimmer who could have competed (or competed well) at the event if it was held either a month later or a month earlier, as many college and some HS swimmers were either undergoing final exams at that time, or were preparing for exams/still in school/graduating or preparing for graduation. Open water competitions in the US of late have allowed some swimmers a place on a National/Jr. National OW team, just because they showed up and happened to finish the race.

Of course, USA swimming doesn’t give a hoot about either distance or open water swimming and you can certainly see it reflected in their policies. Which strikes me as really funny to imagine… Read more »

Reply to  coach
9 years ago

Actually Coach, the 10K was the day of graduation. The day before is Athletic Graduation, where we are sitting inside the Galen Center. She had a post-race interview and admitted it was more of a mental issue vs. physical that day due to what she was missing on campus…

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

Read More »