Open-water swimming is catching on more than ever as an ultimate endurance sport

Credit: USA/Allsport
Its probably the only sport that is loaded with variables that are always changing the conditions and affecting the athletes results.

In baseball and football you have rain, cold, wind, sometimes snow; only football will keep playing. Those can be tough conditions; however, they're just a few of the elements an open-water swimmer may face.

Adding to the possibility of wind, cold and rain, consider: high surf, tides, rip currents, water intake, pollution, jellyfish and sharks, making open-water swimming an ultimate endurance sport.

With the season in full swing, Active.com will take a look at the sport that challenges the mysterious sea, and offer coverage of the worlds top open-water races. We will also provide a series of features on the worlds most challenging water bodies.

Open-water swimming traces its roots to Capt. Matthew Webb, the first man to cross the English Channel back in 1875. At that time, the glory of finishing a long and dangerous swim was the reward.

The sport has evolved into a competitive endeavor, with time being an important factor and strategy often proving the decisive one. The popularity of open-water swimming has lead the international governing body of swimming (FINA) to form an open-water committee, and there is a professional circuit in Europe.

What defines open-water swimming? Obviously, it's a swimming race that takes place almost anywhere except in a pool. But there is much more to it than that.

The courses for these races are held in an open body of water and may be from one point of a lake, bay, or ocean to another, or a repetitive circuit. The length of the race is usually five, 10, 15 or 25 kilometers and takes several hours to complete.

The athletes must contend with a wide range of sea creatures, debris and water conditions. Jellyfish are a common nuisance, especially when they sting the face, and an occasional shark sighting certainly adds excitement to any workout. Add the common risk of hypothermia, and you have a real live "Movie of the Week" in the works.

Swimmers are known for their creativity and ingenuity to deal with the elements. Melvin Stewart's "breathe-to-the-side" butterfly, Mike Barrowman's "wave-style" breaststroke and David Berkoff's backstroke "blast-off" were all new and groundbreaking developments in swimming.

Karen Burton and Chad Hundeby are two swimmers who are changing swimming as well.

Burton is the National Open Water Team coordinator, as well as the 1993 25-kilometer open-water national champion, and Hundeby is the first man to swim 25 kilometers in under five hours. In a sport that recently has experienced a new surge in popularity, these two national champions are veterans.

Open-water racing is a bit of a purist sport. For instance, there are no lanes, starting blocks or other "high tech" devices that pool swimmers are used to. No wetsuits are allowed just swimming suits, caps and goggles. If there is a threat of polluted water, a gamma globulin shot is necessary.

The coach of an open-water athlete has many responsibilities during the race. In addition to navigating the swimmer's route by boat, the coach is a cheerleader, rodeo clown and boxing trainer all in one. They encourage and support the swimmer in the often-lonely water. They are like the rodeo clowns that protect bull riders, always aware of water conditions and communicating by flailing their arms or writing on a marking board.

The coach also has the responsibility of throwing in the proverbial white towel for a swimmer experiencing hypothermia or who is dangerously fatigued. Since taking splits is virtually impossible, the coach counts their athlete's stroke rate in strokes per minute, and may relay that information to them. The marking board is used for signals, as oral communication is neither clear nor energy-efficient for the swimmer.

"The first priority of the coach is the safety of the swimmer," says National Open Water Team Coach Sid Cassidy. "Unlike pool swimming, a coach's job does not stop when the swimmer starts the race. It is really a team effort."

During quick feed stops (two to four seconds) the athlete drinks replacement fluids and may occasionally blurt out a question, request or complaint to the coach.

"Coaches expect verbal abuse during a race," Burton says. "It's nothing personal, it just happens."

What do the athletes think about for six hours at a time in the middle of the ocean with nobody around them except their coach's boat?

"I try to turn my brain off and swim," Burton says. After hours in the water, the athletes often emerge in a daze. Solar-panel blankets are wrapped around them to prevent hypothermia and replacement fluids and food are always available.

Soon after the race, the athletes are back in the water training for the next competition. With a sport as demanding as open-water swimming, the athletes cannot afford many days off. Open-water swimming is certainly establishing itself as a sport for athletes with a high tolerance of pain and an unusual level of patience and determination.

So the waters warming up; jump in with Active.com!


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