Commentary on 25K FINA World Championships

Commentary on 25K FINA World Championships

Commentary on 25K FINA World Championships

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

The open water events at the 14th FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China had everything – dramatic races, incredibly tactical racing, photo finishes and humble champions who gave credit to their equally valiant competitors. Twenty well-conditioned athletes who all strategically swam their races also earned berths in the 2012 London Olympics 10K Marathon Swim. Of the twenty athletes, 18 countries were represented – proving that the distribution of open water talent is global.

But it was the circumstances of the last swim of the competition, the ultra-marathon distance of 25 km (15.5 miles) that caused considerable angst in the open water swimming community. As the water temperature hovered about 29°C all week during the 5 km, 5 km team time trial and 10 km events, the temperature rose to 31°C (87.8°F) in the early stages of the 25K race.

The water temperature was monitored by a water temperature hung off of the FINA Safety Delegate’s boat. As the sun rose higher and higher after the 6:00 am start, the race officials, coaches and officials were carefully and constantly checking the water temperature.

31°C was understood by those in the global open water swimming community as the maximum allowable water temperature. This limit, instituted for safety reasons, was thought to be too high by the athletes and other experienced marathon swimming professionals, but at least a limit was instituted.

But, as the athletes, coaches and even many officials were surprised to learn before the race, the 31°C mark was not a rule or even a standard. It was defined by FINA as a guideline. After months of internal FINA discussions about implementing a maximum water temperature due to the death of Fran Crippen in Dubai, the 31°C guideline meant there was no clearly defined maximum water temperature. There was no mark in the sand or well-defined limit for the athlete’s safety. Rather, 31°C was only a guideline, enabling the ultimate decision to stop or modify (i.e., shorten) a marathon race in the hands of the FINA doctor on hand and the FINA Safety Delegate.

That being said, it was also clear both in discussions before and after the race in clearly inhospitable conditions that there was an expectation of most swimmers that the swim would be called or at least shortened when the water temperature increased to 31°C. Even the most experienced swimmer in the field, English Channel world record holder Petar Stoychev who has dominated the ultra-marathon FINA circuit for a decade and who concurrently sits on two FINA committees, including the Technical Open Water Swimming Committee, was one of those athletes. “I picked up the pace when the water temperature was increasing to 31°C because I thought the race might be shortened,” he commented after.

Despite the surprise and protests from the athletes and coaches, FINA stood by the 31°C mark as a guideline, not as a rule. So despite rising temperatures throughout the competition, FINA’s doctor, in consultation with FINA’s Safety Delegate, had the complete leeway to allow the race to continue.

Rightly so and to their credit, FINA and the local organizing committee added additional safety personnel on the course and encouraged teams to add more coaches for each of their swimmers on the two feeding pontoons on the 2-loop 2.5K course.

In addition to elevated water temperatures, race officials correctly determined that other atmospheric conditions were important elements to consider. In making a judgment call to either stop or shorten the race, the FINA doctor and Safety Delegate took into consideration the humidity, wind speed, air temperature and amount of solar radiation (based on cloud cover) throughout the race.

But concerns still abound and coaches were clearly upset during the race and were independently checking the water temperature with their own water thermometers. World champions such as Alex Meyer of the United States (25K), Linsy Heister of the Netherlands (25 km) and Thomas Lurz of Germany (5 km and 10 km) pulled out due to the conditions that clearly weakened the field and drew attention to the athletes’ position.

Throughout the race, the FINA Delegate repeatedly communicated the water temperature to the officials and coaches, some of whom had their own temperatures hanging off the feeding pontoons. After 31°C was reached, the FINA doctor and FINA Safety Delegate went out to the feeding pontoons and consulted with the coaches about the possibility of canceling or shortening the race.

Despite their swimmers enveloped in the 31°C water for hours, some coaches apparently concurred with the FINA doctor and FINA Safety Delegate and the race continued. However, other coaches had a very different perspective. “When the FINA official and Medical officer came to the feeding station to inform the coaches that the temperature was more than 31°C, there was no discussion with the coaches. There was only a statement by the FINA official that the organizing committee and FINA had met and decided that conditions were safe to continue the full completion of 25K,” recalled more than one of the coaches on the feeding pontoon.

This lack of consensus among the coaches is unfortunate. But even more fundamentally so, the lack of important input from the coaches is unacceptable. Shocking to be frank. These coaches train these athletes nearly every day. These men and women know the physiological limits of these young adults. To ignore their input under such inhospitable conditions is not right, is unnecessarily and dangerously risky, and unacceptably flies in the face of the concern that FINA publicly states.

So despite the athletes’ complaints about the FINA medical recommendation of 31°C as the maximum water temperature, some coaches concluded that the conditions were permissible to continue. While most athletes forged on, other athletes either could not continue or were pulled from the water (refer to results listed below).

The justifications to continue on included:

1. The top athletes could handle these conditions,
2. FINA had held races in even warmer conditions and nothing happened,
3. The coaches on the course supported this decision,
4. There were adequate number of safety personnel on the course.

However, our opinion is different. We strongly believe the race should have been immediately called when the water temperature reached 31°C. In fact, as the water temperature was clearly approaching 31°C, we believe the athletes and coaches should have been notified that one more loop would commence as the final lap. This would have allowed a reasonable finish to a world championship race held under inhospitable conditions.

So while the spectators were thoroughly impressed with the victories of Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria and Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil, we do not believe the swimmers should have had to swim 25K to demonstrate their incredible physiological talents and psychological strengths.

FINA had the opportunity to demonstrate to the global open water community its leadership in making a decision that unequivocally placed the safety of young athletes ahead of any other possible consideration.

Simply because well-prepared athletes like Stoychev and Cunha could perform superhumanly does not mean that FINA’s guideline should be extended to all athletes. While FINA had several doctors on call during its World Championship, what happens at other FINA events are held and fewer and less qualified doctors are on call? While FINA invested in a sophisticated US$300,000 sonar tracking system at the venue that can pinpoint if a swimmer collapsed and submerged under the water surface, what happens at other FINA events where the US$300,000 sonar safety system is not a viable option?

As the race continued on under the warm conditions, several athletes were pulled from the water including two-time world champion Valerio Cleri who is known in the elite open water swimming circles as one of its best prepared and most hardy athletes. While the 2009 25K world champion from Italy could not continue towards the later stages of the race, the two reigning world 25K champions, Alex Meyer and Linsy Heister, did not even start the race.

When conditions are such that the two reigning world champions protest through a DNS (Did Not Start), the sport moves from a world-class competition to an extreme sport duel between athlete and Mother Nature.

Additionally like Meyer and Heister, established open water swimming superstars like world champion Thomas Lurz and Olympian Brian Ryckerman understandably elected to skip the event due to the conditions.

The decision to continue because the top swimmers looked good to the FINA doctor is a confusing message to send to the global open water swimming community. We strongly believe it is important to establish and adjudicate rules that are appropriate to ALL athletes, not primarily aimed at the elite athletes. In this case, FINA made its decision heavily based on the performance of the athletes in the front of the pack, not in the middle or rear of the pack. One could argue cynically that FINA placed a higher priority on the health and welfare of the fastest athletes compared with other athletes.

Furthermore, the decision to continue the race because other races at other times were held in similarly warm conditions does not justify its decision. In the open water world, every race is different, but the sport is growing exponentially and swimmers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds are flocking to the sport. While FINA sanctions races aimed at the elite athlete, its influence is global. But when it pushes the envelope into the extreme realm, then reasonable race directors, coaches and athletes will look elsewhere for examples to follow.

There were other issues related to safety on the course. While safety personnel were added on the course, they were fully clothed and some could not swim. Sure they were manned by plenty of boats and communication equipment, but were they fully prepared to immediately jump in the water to save a life? The hallmark of any competent safety personnel is that ability – to not only identify a distressed swimmer, but also to make an immediate decision to jump in the water.

It was clear during the race that the Chinese safety personnel were not prepared for extreme conditions. On several occasions during the event, safety personnel were called for back-up help by the race officials, but the personnel were either inexcusably delayed or just simply never showed up.

There was one instance when a coach asked the race officials to get his swimmer out of the water. The distressed swimmer was quickly identified and the FINA official pulled alongside the athlete requesting that the athlete stop. The athlete was crying and dry-heaving, but shook her head that she wanted to continue. While her competitive spirit was in full force, it was obvious she had reached her physiological limits. Her stroke count has dramatically fallen, her kick was nearly non-existent and her own coach wanted her out for safety reasons. The FINA official intentionally gave her a red card and then jumped in the water to support the fat-fading swimmer. When he grabbed her and pulled her to the boat, her tears flowed as she continued to fight the ravages of the high water temperatures. Coughing, vomiting and crying with no energy left to swim, she was pulled onshore and given immediate medical help. When the Chinese safety personnel finally arrived, it was clear that a strong eggbeater and swimming ability were not his strengths. “I felt more like a lifeguard out there rather than a referee,” said the official. “In those conditions, officiating took a backseat to simple lifeguarding. But even after jumping in to help one swimmer, we had to go back out and make sure no one else was going under. This is not what athletics should be about.”

Going forward, we encourage FINA to not only carefully review the situation with the athletes and coaches who know their athletes best, but to also incorporate the requests of the athletes when extreme conditions prevail. While medical personnel, administrators, officials and lifeguards have opinions, knowledge and expertise on topics as hypothermia and hyperthermia and research conducted on non-professional marathon swimmers, no one experiences open water like these top-level athletes. They are the ones who feel the pain and discomfort of extreme conditions in the open water. They are the ones who bear the ultimate risk.

If we treasure their athletic prowess and admire their commitment, then it is high time that we respect their wishes and reasonable requests.

In light of the legacy of Fran Crippen, the remaining athletes and all future athletes greatly deserve our respect. Let’s listen to them and pay heed to their collective voice. FINA had an opportunity to showcase a beautiful aquatic discipline – which it did very well in the shorter distances – but we believe it fell short in the 25K. FINA can make its future open water events reasonable athletic competitions. It can and should leave the extreme niches of open water swimming to other organizations and individuals.

In summary, we are here because of the athletes and for no other reason.

Note: Results of the women’s race are here; results of the men’s race are here.

Photo shows the effect of heat and sun on the back of Trent Grimsey at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships where the FINA Medical Delegate and the FINA Safety Delegate allowed the 25 km race to continue as the water temperature exceeded 31°C. Other related articles are posted below:

* FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 1 is here.
* FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 2 is here.
* FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 3 is here.
* Why 31°C FINA?Part 4
* USA Triathlon Fatality Incidents Study is here.
* New South Wales Maximum Water Temperature Rules are here.

Copyright © 2008 – 2011 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones