Open Water's Uniqueness Among Endurance Sports

Open Water’s Uniqueness Among Endurance Sports

There are many endurance sports and adventure endeavors in the world. Men and women push themselves in all sorts of ways, conditions and distances from triathlons to ultra-marathon runs, mountaineering to cycling, cross-country skiing to Polar expeditions.

But we believe open water swimming is particularly unique among the world’s physical activities, especially the niche areas of ice swimming, marathon swimming and channel swimming.

Open water swimming – an activity that mankind is not particularly well-suited for – is unique for five reasons: Solitary Adversity, Physical Exposure, Absence of Perception, Survival Dependence, and Intensity of Experience.

Solitary Adversity: Unlike running, cycling, mountaineering or other land-based activities, there is no opportunity to stop and rest during an open water swim. Naturally, a swimmer or triathlete can temporarily pause and tread water as they eat, drink, stretch, or catch their breath. But stopping and resting is not the same option as on a bike, during run or up on a mountain. Not only does treading water take energy, but it also creates a situation where the swimmer can get cold, regress due to currents, get nauseous with waves, or get stung with jellyfish. Stopping in the open water is unlike slowing down on a bicycle and just cruising, or slowing to a jog during a marathon run, stopping to sit or pitching a tent while mountaineering.

Open water swimming is a singular act that requires non-stop action from shore to shore. Adversity from marine life, currents, waves, water temperature (either cold or warm), and tides is constantly present from start to finish.

While other endurance sports demand incredible energy levels, mental toughness and risk-taking, the Solitary Adversity faced by open water swimmers is like no other.

Physical Exposure. Unlike running with shoes, mountaineering with snow gear, cycling in a variety of gear, or doing a paddling on a kayak, open water swimmers and (non-wetsuited) triathletes are almost entirely exposed to the elements. Other than a single swim cap, a pair of goggles and ear plugs, nearly all of the swimmer’s skin is fully in touch with the elements. No other endurance sport bares its athletes like open water swimming. Hot, cold, rough, calm; the lack of protection is a constant. The swimmer or triathlete faces whatever is out there: there is no protection against the venomous stings of jellyfish or the warm rays of the sun. After a marathon swim, the skin of swimmers is often the most damaged and transformed of any athlete: sunburned, stripped with stings, swollen. The epidermis is the visible and undeniable proof that the sport can be harsh and unforgiving.

Absence of Perception. Run, cycle, climb, ski, whatever land-based activity is performed, there is almost always visual clues as to where the athlete is headed and where they have come from. However, out in open bodies of water, the open water swimmer or triathlete often have no sense of where they are going. Their perspective is often only centimeters above the water’s surface with visual and auditory limitations. There is a fundamental inability to fully utilize the five physiological senses traditionally used on land (i.e., sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) that open water swimmers and triathletes face, or rather endure, when swimming either solo or in a competitive environment in an open body of water.

Swimmers and triathletes need escorts to guide them, buoys to direct them, and kayakers to safeguard them. When there is nearly complete absence of perception during an endurance endeavor, the sport lays on another layer of difficulty: the mind. It is for good reason that marathon swimming is often called 80% mental and only 20% physical. That 80% can transform a swim in a moment’s notice. There is no sitting down and resting when the mind starts heading down the vortex of negativity. “The water is too cold; the shoulders hurt; the seasickness is overwhelming; the distance is too great.” These thoughts can quickly replicate themselves and led to a swimmer calling it quits. Or, more likely, these thoughts represent an abyss from which a swimmer can demonstrate resilience, fortitude and courage.

Survival Dependence. Out in the middle of a lake or in a channel or out in the ocean deep, the swimmer and triathlete are utterly dependent on the pilot, crew, and safety personnel. There is a figurative umbilical cord between the swimmer and crew, among the triathletes and officials’ boats and personnel. Without one, there is not the other. But especially in the most literal sense, a team is absolutely required to safely cross from here to there. The pilot and crew, kayakers and paddlers, lifeguards and safety officials are requisite elements of the total equation. While endurance athletes can run or cycle or mountaineer long distances, the consequences of swimming marathon distances – or even shorter distance events – without a crew are inconceivable, too dangerous to contemplate. Swimmer needs the pilot and crew for food, for hydration, for navigation, for safety. When all the elements are combined, from jellyfish to cold water, the cumulative impact on the swimmer and the triathlete is greater than the sum of the parts. That is, a jellyfish sting may be acceptable in the early part of the swim when the water is calm and the swimmer is fresh, but that same jellyfish sting at night after 8 hours of swimming in cold water under rough conditions presents an entirely different scenario. The crew is critical and essential for, literally, their very survival.

Intensity of Experience. For all of these elements faced by open water swimmers and triathletes: Solitary Adversity, Physical Exposure, Absence of Perception, and Survival Dependence, the Intensity of Experience is arguably beyond what is felt by endurance athletes on terra firma. To be alone with one’s thoughts, fully exposed to the elements without clothes, unable to see ahead or hear others, when one’s survival always remains in question, then the intensity of the experience in the water is elevated to a uniquely difficult level. At times, open water swimming can be worrisome. Other times, it can be downright scary or dangerous. Sometimes, it is terrifying yet frequently invigorating. It is occasionally challenging, but always alluring. To delve deep down to the depths of emotion while facing physical adversities in a rough, dynamic environment is an opportunity to reach one’s athletic potential. It creates an opportunity to extend yourself mentally and physically further than you ever thought possible. It enables athletes to see how far one’s body and mind can be stretched to reach a specific goal – and then transfer that newly found confidence to activities on terra firma. For after all the obstacles that are faced and overcome, the athlete emerges at the other end with a reinvigorated and rejuvenated feeling of accomplishment. As deep as they fall, they also feel elevated up in glory upon reaching the other shore.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association