Old School vs. New School Of Open Water Swimming

Old School vs. New School Of Open Water Swimming

Most recently, there have been several wetsuit-clad marathon swims of note from the Bering Strait to northern California.

In the Old School, where the rules of the English Channel and British Long Distance Swimming Association have played such an influential and important role since 1926, these swims would not be certified, ratified or authorized.

Old School understands that wetsuits or any means to maintain or aid in buoyancy or warmth was to artificially overcome one of the most difficult aspects of open water swimming: the cold.

Since swimmers started to attempt crossings in oceans and lakes, swimmers know that hypothermia was and remains the greatest obstacle to success. With normal body temperatures of 37°C (98.6°F), anything below 15°C (59°F) required months, if not years, of dedicated training. Cold water acclimatization is a requirement. Training in the cold water is not easy and requires a mental toughness combined with a passionate commitment to get into and stay in cold water. Waves, currents, jellyfish, altitude, whitecaps and distance are certainly challenges, but none as difficult to overcome as one’s own decreasing core body temperature.

The first sensation swimmers feel in the cold water is utter cold where the extremities feel frozen and one’s body shivers with the cold. At the water’s edge, swimmers take a gut check of their commitment. Total commitment is required, taking a certain kind of athlete to continue past this point.

For those who continue in the cold water, there are times when one’s body starts to shake. First, just slightly and then violently. It is at this point where most swimmers raise their hand for help or head to shore or to their escort boat to get ot. Some athletes push themselves past this point of extreme discomfort through a combination of the power of cold water training (acclimatization) and a tremendously strong will. A smal percentage of athletes, who are often guided by those unfamiliar with the dangers of hypothermia, continue until they must be pulled from the water, often completely unaware of reality and their surroundings. During the advanced stages of hypothermia, the skin becomes discolored and mental acuity is significantly reduced.

It is this extreme ability to push oneself mentally and physically that the marathon swimming world highly respects and honors.

But wetsuits effectively eliminate cold from the equation. With wetsuits, the body is protected not only from the cold, but also from jellyfish and the harsh effects of the sun. With wetsuits, athletes receive the added benefit of buoyancy and have the opportunity to let their feet drag behind them – riding high in the water – a luxury not afforded to traditional swimmers. With buoyancy, warmth and protection from the elements and marine life, wetsuit swimmers have significant advantages that traditional marathon swimmers do not have.

But like conservatives and liberals in the political world, wetsuiters and traditionalists live in different worlds, adhere to different rules and are concerned with different policies.

The open water is a giant place with plenty of room for both.

Upper photo on left shows Abu-Heif, one of the greatest marathon swimmers of all time, and a swimmer in San Francisco Bay by Flatstar Design.

Copyright © 2010 by Steven Munatones
Steven Munatones