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.