Minimum Allowable Age Discussion In Open Water Swimming

Minimum Allowable Age Discussion In Open Water Swimming

How young should – or can – athletes be to participate in open water races? It is a debatable topic that depends on the local traditions and venues.

There was an interesting discussion on the Open Water Race Directors and Coaches virtual group about reasonable minimum ages allowable for open water swims.

The issue was brought up by Kate Alexander of the Cayman Islands and Open Water Race Directors and Coaches from around the world provided her with a plethora of helpful advice.

Kate’s was looking for guidelines on the minimum age requirements for open water swimming competitions of 800 meters, 1 mile, 2 miles, 5K and 10K. She asked the group if it is reasonable to make exceptions if young swimmer are good and has the explicit permission of their coach and parent. Issues such as is a 7-year-old swimmer too young if the swim is conducted in shallow water with easy access to the shoreline (6-year-olds with a parent swimming alongside) are very real issues for some race directors.

The answers and guidance from race directors in Spain, America, Canada, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Great Britain varied:

Ignacio Martinez Sela of Spain recommended that race organizers must consider the type of course and can offer floating aids for the youngest swimmers. He believes encouragement at the early years is important with safety the foremost in mind.

In Spain, if a swimmer is officially licensed, insurance covers liability for damages, subject to compliance with Spanish regulations that are in accordance with FINA rules (where 14 years is the minimum age for the FINA competitions that range from 5K – 88K). “The youngest participants are 6 years old swimming 1.1K downstream in a river and with their parent(s). In the [world renowned] Descenso a Nado de la Ria de Navia, we are privately insurance that covers all cases that fall outside of what the federal insurance offers, in addition to requiring parental consent.”

Security measures are never enough. The risk is always there despite all precautions and safety measures, both in water with boats, kayaks and surfers and on land with a medical area and doctors and ambulances. In a safe course, I have no problem in principle to admit swimmers under the age of 14.”

Sela also reminded the virtual group that the issue of youth can be viewed from the opposite end of the age scale. “In LEN European Masters Open Water Swimming Championships they have generous minimum time marks (i.e., slow) that must be achieved either in a pool or in the open water. But the problem is how to confirm these qualification times, especially when the number of participants exceeds 3000. There is always risk whether the swimmers are young or old.”

One additional idea is to have an OTL (Over Time Limit) rule such as in place for FINA professional marathon swims. That is, when a certain time is reached, all swimmers on the course are forced to retire and are picked up by the official boats.

Chip Carrigan of the USA who runs the Ohio State Open Water Swimming Championships stated, “Firstly, we determined our customers (age groups). Then we determine the distance and define the time standards for entry.”

Jose Ferreira Pinto in Hong Kong said, “In 5K events in Hong Kong, there is a cut-off time and swimmers are classified based on their previous performances in shorter distances (3K and 3.5K), but we have had one girl and one boy both 12 years old do the 5K race.”

Radek Taborsky in the Czech Republic where there are many established open water swims told the group, “In the Czech Republic, we have also limited ages for open water races. No open water swims for those under the age of 10 years. Up to 1K for 10 year olds. Up to 3K for 11 – 12 year olds. Up to 5K for 13 – 14 year olds.”

Radek provides another experienced vote of experience when he mentioned an important factor regarding water temperature. “Another limitation in the Czech Republic results from the water temperature. We do not allow any swim for swimmers younger than 14 years when the water is below 16°C (60.8°F). Also, if swimmers are younger than 14 years, they are only allowed to swim 50% of total distance if the water temperature is below 18°C (64.4°C).”

Elizabeth Fry of the SWIM Across The Sound gave some perspective to this issue. “Our stated age minimum is 19 years old for the solo and two-person relay participants and 13 years old for team relays. The SWIM Committee has discretion to allow the age minimum requirement to be waived. Since 2007, we have had only 3 underage swimmers petition for consideration to our 25K race: a 16-year-old solo swimmer who had participated on team relays for four consecutive years, a 15-year-old who swam a two-person relay with his father for multiple years, and a 12-year-old for a team relay who is a very accomplished age group swimmer and daughter of Marcia Cleveland who was also on the relay.”

The requirements were initially developed for an under-age solo swimmer and were later tailored for the relays. Because we are concerned that this under-age group (i.e., 16 – 18 years olds) have tremendous pressure and time constraints in their junior and senior years of high school, we took a fairly rigorous approach with the hope that the requirements would assist in providing the highest probability of a successful crossing. The objective was to insure that the petitioning swimmer understood the commitment, the prioritization as it relates to academic and family responsibilities and received the training, guidance, and support system necessary from his/her family, coaches, school and community.”

The writtn requirements for solo swimmers under the minimum age of 19 years old are quite detailed:

The physical and mental capabilities and potential scholastic impact to high school academics due to the time and training commitment will be considered. A swimmer under the age of 16 on the day of the event will not be considered under any circumstance. The following minimum requirements must be met for acceptance of a swimmer under the age of 19 years:

1. Written consent from custodial parent or guardian.
2. At least 3 prior years participating on a SWIM Across The Sound relay to ensure that the swimmer has specific SWIM Across The Sound experience.
3. A written letter of recommendation from swim coach – stating that the swimmer can complete the swim safely in the allotted time. The letter should include previous and proposed training schedule, level of commitment to assist in the training of this swimmer, workout ethics, etc. Letter must be submitted no later than the application deadline date of May 1st.
4. Written acknowledgement and acceptance by student, parent and responsible high school counselor or teacher of consequences including exclusion from event should academic standing suffer or decline.
5. Submission of 16-week training log submitted weekly to the Committee beginning March 15th. The average yardage per week should be approximately 30,000 yards.
6. Documented completion of four indoor training sessions of 2 hours or more with ‘qualified/designated’ workout partners.
7. Documented completion of six open water training session of 2 – 4 hours with ‘qualified’ long distance swimmers.
8. Documented Completion of a 6-hour Qualifier Swim
9. Parent or legal guardian required as crew. The parent or legal guardian cannot act in a medical or EMT capacity. The parent or legal guardian cannot be the boat pilot.
10. An Official Observer shall be placed on the boat to monitor and assess the swimmer. The official observer shall be in sole charge of the supervision of the swim, and shall be responsible for the interpretation of the rules, including the right to cancel the swim in adverse conditions and/or danger to the swimmer.
11. If all of the above requirements met, commitment by swimmer and parent or guardian to fundraising activities.

Similar requirements apply to the other categories, explains Liz. “However, 12-year-olds for a team relay are the youngest we consider. Our event is geared toward fundraising and our focus is safety first. The Long Island Sound is not a shoreline swim and can be rough physically and mentally for the inexperienced open water swimmer, even if on a team relay. Any distance above 3K should have 13-year-old minimum, with prior open water credentials. You can develop a natural progression for increasing distances as the children get older.”

Colin Hills of the Great Swim Series in Great Britain reminded the group, “I think that you have to be careful when you look at guidelines or rules from FINA and other governing bodies. Their events are often specifically for competitive swimmers, whereas the events that we organize (i.e., Great Swim) are aimed at fun (recreational) swimmers. But it is good to have your distances at least based off something, in the case your safety plan is challenged.”

In the one-mile Great Swim Series, the swims are for swimmers over 16 years old and 500 meters for those over 11 years old. The triathlon rules in the UK include the following:

8 years old = 100 meters maximum in the open water
9 – 10 years old = 200 meters maximum in the open water
11 – 12 years old = 300 meters maximum in the open water
13 – 14 years old = 350 meters maximum in the open water
15 – 16 years old = 750 meters in the open water

British Swimming states (based on good strong competitive swimmers), “410.4 Open Water. Events up to and including 1,000 meters, [the minimum age is] 11 years. Events up to and including 2,000 meters, [the minimum age is] 12 years. Events up to and including 10,000 meters, [the minimum age is] 13 years. Events over 10,000 meters, [the minimum age is] 16 years.”

Rob Kent in Canada explains, “This is something we struggled with for the LOST Race in Lake Ontario. 13 seems to be a good age and give the race committee some discretion, as some of these young kids are much faster and stronger than their age.”

Erik Van Loon of the Rotterdam Swimming Ambassadors and the Rondje Noordereiland uses 12 years as the minimum age (with the oldest swimmer at 79 years).

At the newly established FINA Junior World Open Water Swimming Championships, there will be two categories: the Youth events where the ages are 14 – 16 years and the Junior events where the age are 17 – 18 years.

The Youth boys and girls will swim the 5K while the Junior boys and girls will compete in the 7.5K. There will also be a mixed-gender 3K Team Event with 3 swimmers, either 2 boys and 1 girl or 2 girls and 1 boy in both the Youth and Junior categories. Younger swimmers can ‘swim up’ – so the 14 – 16 year olds may swim the 7.5K or 3K Team Event if their national federation so decides. There are no special requirements other than the athletes are representatives of their national federation.

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