Predictable Unpredictability And Expecting The Unexpected

Predictable Unpredictability And Expecting The Unexpected

Courtesy of WOWSAHuntington Beach, California.

From lakes (e.g., Lake Michigan or Lake Ontario) to rivers (e.g., Hudson River or Rio Paraná), from seas (e.g., Mediterranean Sea or Arctic Sea) to channels (Molokai Channel or North Channel), open bodies of water can be unpredictable.

Winds, currents, tides, marine life, and upwelling of cold water are all elements that can dramatically change the conditions faced by open water swimmers, their kayakers and paddlers, and escort pilots and crews. They all fundamentally understand the concept of Expect the Unexpected.

Predictable Unpredictability is a commonly understood mantra of open water swimming, a fundamental appreciation and common experience among open water swimmers and triathletes that the elements (e.g., wind, waves, currents, tides, marine life, water temperature, rain, lightening or fog), course (e.g., turn buoy placement, course layout, feeding station, start, finish structure, boating traffic, shoreline distance, official boat or kayak placement, escort boat fumes, mechanical boat failure), competition (pacing and positioning relative to other male, female and/or wetsuited swimmers or division separation) and one’s own physical conditions (due to seasickness, lack of hydration or ill feeling due to inappropriate food or drink mixtures, stamina or strength) can present them with unplanned surprises and unexpected circumstances during an open water swimming competition, solo swim or relay that requires athletes, coaches, pilots, support crew, safety personnel and officials to adapt and accommodate to the situation.

One famous example of Predictable Unpredictability is when Maarten van der Weijden won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in the 10K marathon swim.  Steven Munatones explained the basic concept, “The Unexpected or Predictable Unpredictability comprises of five dimensions:

1. Water Conditions
2. Weather Conditions
3. Competitors or Crew
4. Physiological Phenomena
5. Psychological Phenomena

Expect the Unexpected can come in multiple dimensions, sometimes all at the same time. The water conditions such as the water temperature and currents can change for better or worse at any time. The water can get warmer or colder. The currents can become beneficial and push us in a favorable direction – or do the exact opposite.

The weather conditions can also get better and become more tranquil. Or winds can come up, whipping up the water to intolerable conditions – or lightning can strike and lead to a DNF. Cloud cover can make warm-water swims more tolerable – or rain can make the swim tougher. It all depends and swimmers have to be ready for all conditions.

In terms of a race, your competitors can be the catalyst of The Unexpected. Perhaps you get hit rounding a turn buoy or your competitor hits your feeding stick and your water bottle is lost around the feeding station? Or they can slow down the pace at precisely the right time for you – or pick up the pace precisely at the worse time for you. Similarly, in a solo crossing or in a relay, your escort crew can have a very positive – or negative – impact on your performance. A crew member can say precisely the right thing to make you feel better – or they can say the wrong thing and make you feel worse – or think twice about your swim.

Physiologically, anything can happen. Your shoulder can start hurting – or your back or hip. Or maybe you want to urinate, but you cannot. Or your feeding does not go as planned – or you get stung by jellyfish. All these things can make your swim start heading south. Of course, hypothermia and hyperthermia are things that can become a major problem. But sunburnchafing, or swallowing water can also lead to other physical problems.

But, most importantly, the psychological phenomenon in a race can have the important impact on a swim. Once the human mind is made up and once you are convinced of your success – or failure – almost nothing can stop you. The water can be too cold or too warm, but your mind can literally overcome these obstacles (to a certain extent). I am always reminded how Petar Stoychev won the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai in 32°C water, but then he also swam an Ice Kilometer in water below 0°C in Antarctica. A jellyfish sting can hurt, but a positive mindset can elevate you to a different realm. I recall how Kimberley Chambers and Anne Marie Ward were both stung mercilessly in the North Channel by jellyfish, but they made the crossing. Or how Mányoki Attila overcame many things to complete the North Channel and Oceans Seven – or how Natalie du Toit and Maarten van der Weijden overcome obstacles to succeed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

There is nothing as powerful – or debilitating – as the made-up human mind. Believing is the first step in achieving.”

Copyright 2008 – 2021 by World Open Water Swimming Association