Demographic Trends In Open Water Swimming

Demographic Trends In Open Water Swimming

By all accounts, open water swimming is expanding in unprecedented ways. The number of events, the number of participants, the number of locations, the number of races entered annually by each participant, the number of women, the amount of pro races, the number of televised swims, the number of associations and organizations, and the number of people over the age of 40 are all measures that the sport are increasing.

While observers have pointed to the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics, the expanding awareness placed on fitness, and the increasing use of social media as reasons for the sport’s popularity growth, there is another demographic reason.

Baby boomers are taking up the sport in growing numbers. Injured from running, going through rehabilitation, in a mid-life crisis, between jobs, post-divorce, or just looking for something more mellow than mud runs and extreme sports, the mid-lifers are flocking to the sport like pelicans to a school of fish.

And when the baby boom generation takes something under its wing, things change dramatically.

As defined by the United States Census Bureau, the baby boom generation includes people born between 1946 and 1964. This group includes 76 million individuals or 28% of the American population. In 2013, over 4 million Americans will turn 50 years old. As one example, the Half Century Club is bursting at the seams with marathon swimmers and others older than 50 who are participating in more and more ocean, lake and river swims. With the interest in swimming increasing in this demographic group, it is a natural result that the sport of open water swimming correspondingly increases in unprecedented percentages.

Compared to Generation Y or those born between 1977 and 1994 (76 million Americans also referred to as the Millennials), the Baby Boomers remain slightly larger. But in contrast to Baby Boomers, the Millennials are marketed to by USA Swimming, high school swimming, triathlons and myriad other sports and governing bodies. The attention paid to open water swimming by the younger generations is miniscule compared to the interest in open water swimmers shown by the Baby Boomers.

Many Baby Boomers are looking for a low-impact sport where participation and completion are the goals as opposed to placing and competition. Many have done running and a variety of other land-based sports where knee, hip and joint problems cut short careers. Open water swimming offers them a sport that simultaneously provides them with a sense of adventure and joint-friendly buoyancy as well as an effective means of overall aerobic conditioning while aiding their flexibility.

Years ago, we conducted a study of the member growth in USA Swimming, the governing body of competitive swimming in the United States. The membership has growth consistently from the 1970’s to 2010, but over this generation, it has grown nearly at the rate of the overall population growth. In contrast, the growth of open water swimming is truly represented by a hockey stick with its trajectory skyward.

We foresee the Baby Boomers continuing to flock to the open water swimming market in the foreseeable future as more and more events in over 160 countries attract their attention and interest. And, as they enlist their families to join them in local and exotic shorelines, the community will engage the next generation as well.

Photo of the Midmar Mile in South Africa by Jackie Clausen.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association