The Etiquette Of Drafting

The Etiquette Of Drafting

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Among masters swimmers, there is occasionally discussions and debates about the etiquette of drafting in the open water swimming competitions.

One such issue includes, “In a draft-legal open water swimming race, is it good or bad etiquette to draft off another person for all, majority or much of a race and then swing around and try to take the win?”

On one side, the answers can range from “it’s not fair” to “everyone should compete without drafting“.

On the other side, the answers can range from “it’s a race and drafting is a competitive tactic” to “if you are good at it, do it“.

And somewhere between those two opinions are observations ranging from “just don’t keep hitting the feet of the person in front of you” to “swimmers should take their turn at leading as well as drafting“.

While most of world’s open water races sanctioned by national governing bodies and FINA allow drafting, there are a few notable exceptions to the draft-legal races. But for all races, it is illegal and wrong to impede another swimmer’s progress and act in an unsportsmanlike manner. But it is also true that impeding another swimmer and acting in an unsportsmanlike manner can be interpreted differently by different referees.

Our position on drafting recognizes the fundamental differences between drafting as done by professional, elite and competitive masters swimmers and drafting done by individuals who simply want to participate for fitness and a sense of accomplishment.

Among competitive elite and masters swimmers, drafting is an acquired and respected skill. At the competitive level, there are tactics on drafting and positioning that have been researched and taught by open water coaches. Among these swimmers, there is a healthy respect for those who draft and position well and then are able to sprint to victory (e.g., doing The Ilchenko). As was ably demonstrated at the Beijing Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, Maarten van der Weijden and Larisa Ilchenko) are among the most skilled practitioners of this art.

Among professional open water swimmers, tapping on an opponent’s feet and trying to “get inside the head” of one’s competitors while drafting is also a tactic that many athletes grudgingly accept.

While British Olympic medalists Keri-Anne Payne, David Davies and Cassandra Patten are renowned for leading elite races from the front, it is rare that Italian, German, American or Russian world open water swimmers take the lead until the late stages of major professional races. They tend to win at the end by effectively conserving their energy by drafting and smart positioning throughout the race – and then moving into the lead or near the leader with less than 500 meters of the race left.

While some individuals might think this is unfair, ANY and ALL swimmers have the opportunity to draft in a competitive environment.

But for individuals who simply want to enjoy a race and the camaraderie of open water swimming while swimming from Point A to Point B, drafting behind or alongside and then “sprinting” ahead “to win” can be viewed as poor etiquette. This is especially true when a man does this to a woman or a woman does this to a man (to be chicked). Most individuals have no problem with inter-gender competition within a mass participation race, but some individuals get perturbed. Certainly, tapping on the feet or constantly bumping into the person ahead of you is in poor taste.

As a countermeasure in cases where you are being bothered by someone behind you, you can swim laterally – even for only a few meters or strokes – and the problem often resolves itself. Alternatively – and this has occurred at the professional and competitive levels – you can also simply stop or do some easy backstroke or breaststroke until the offender has passed by you, effectively switching positions on your drafting opponent.

Photo of female swimmers drafting off each other at the European Open Water Swimming Championships by Giorgio Scala.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones