Open Water Swimming's Renaissance Period

Open Water Swimming’s Renaissance Period

From our perspective, open water swimmers – and marathon swimmers in particular – seem to possess a desire to continue exploring one’s physiological and psychological limits in the open water after they experience the challenges and joys of their first swim.

We pondered why, especially because the impetus that initially drives these athletes to the sport varies:

The lows and highs of open water swimming are so dramatic that few people can imagine this wide range of emotions outside of the open water world. In no other sport or human endeavor do individuals push themselves to such lengths and extremes while they are essentially naked and suffering from extreme sensory deprivation (i.e., the amount swimmers can see and hear are limited in the ocean).

While mountain climbers, ultra-marathon runners, triathletes, cyclists and endurance sailors also push themselves to the brink of their physical and psychological limit – and often times beyond – they all have the opportunity to sit down, slow down and stop if necessary. While the land-based athletes may occasionally experience hypothermia or hyperthermia like open water swimmers, they can easily add or shed clothing or appropriate weather attire. While the land-based endurance athletes may be occasionally caught in the middle of a whiteout or desert storm, their level of sensory deprivation remains better than any swimmer in the middle of an ocean. While riding against the wind or running uphill are admittedly difficult, swimming against large ocean swells or strong tidal flows aptly, easily and quickly demonstrate to humans how infinitesimally small and feeble they are compared to Mother Nature.

As terrestrial mammals, our natural terrain is land. Comparatively speaking when swimmers enter seas, oceans and lakes, their environment is truly foreign where marine life – both large (e.g., sharks) and small (e.g., Portuguese Man-o-War) – are not only major impediments to success, but also life-threatening ones at that.

On land, we breathe naturally. In the water, breathing is a forced action that requires timing and coordination especially in rough conditions. Breathing on land does nothing to impede your forward progress. Poor breathing technique in the open water only adds to one’s resistance and slows one’s pace and progress.

Whether an athlete tackles the English Channel or a 1-mile swim in a local lake, they clearly understand the challenges that Planet Earth offers. Point-to-point swims and out-and-back courses are visually and intellectually easy to fathom from shore and enable swimmers to fully enjoy the experience of success – or failure. What makes traditional open water swimming (i.e., without wetsuits) so pure, in our minds, is that it is an endeavor that pits humans seeking victory over nature primarily through great effort and will power. But even with wetsuits, the challenge is still very real and endearing to those athletes.

As Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mt. Everest, said, “Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others…it rises from your heart.”

When open water swimmers train and eventually breach these barriers, they internalize the depth of their willpower, self-sacrifice and self-discipline. As they step ashore, their exhaustion is overcome with joy, self-realization and self-pride. They develop an enhanced sense of self and often go on with their daily lives in a renewed positive state that they did not realize or even know possible before.

As a result, after recovering from a swim, many athletes want to experience those feelings and sensations again. And again. And again. For that reason, we believe marathon swimming is an endearing sport that attracts the passionate attention of its enthusiasts for life.

Year after year and decade after decade, the sport is experiencing a consistently healthy percentage of growth – whether it is in the English Channel or everywhere else in the world. Its enthusiasts and supporters continue to grow even without the hoopla and media attention of triathlons, running, cycling or pool swimming. With 70% of the world open water, the sport has not yet begun to experience exponential growth which all trends and data point to over the next few decades.

So whether you have been involved in the sport for decades – as is most colorfully embodied by the individuals inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame – or a relative newcomer, consider yourself a pioneer as the sport of open water swimming enters its Renaissance Period.

Spread the word.

Copyright © 2010 by Steven Munatones
Steven Munatones