Top 10 Competitive Open Water Races In America

Top 10 Competitive Open Water Races In America

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

The world has innumerable difficult open water swimming competitions. But that difficulty is part of the challenge and allure.

Rough conditions, cold water, sharks, jellyfish, tides, currents, waves, high altitudes and logistical considerations are some of the primary obstacles. Everyone has a weakness when it comes to open water swimming. Weakness may come in the form of swimming through rough water and waves. Or weakness might present itself with cold water and hypothermia. Or your weakness may be rooted in the fast pace and physicality of your competitors.

Besides the really long marathon swims in cold water, what are some of the toughest short-distance open water swims around the United States?

While many people can agree on the marathon swims are the epitome on the difficulty scale, it is more subjective and more difficult to identify the relative difficulty of shorter swims. Below are 10 short-distance events around the United States worthy of consideration based on the following criteria:

1. Competitiveness (speed and navigational IQ) of swimmers
2. Turbulence and unpredictability of water conditions
3. Size of the field
4. Course layout
5. Intangibles

The historically most competitive top 10 short-distance open water swims in America are as follows:

1. RCP Tiburon Mile (California): RCP Tiburon Mile is a coolish, highly competitive 1 nautical mile race across the tidal flows of San Francisco Bay. The mad-dash at the start is comprised on flailing arms and legs and splashes. The 300m sprint is followed by a dog leg left towards the unseen finish, unmarked by buoys. The correct line across the Bay with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, is completely unknown by all.

2. Waikiki Roughwater Swim (Hawaii): The competitors in the annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim on Labor Day in September fight across 3 tangents along the 3.8 km course offshore from Oahu in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The winds and currents can create havoc on the first 2 legs, but it is the final 800m leg that requires local surf knowledge or extensive experience to minimize the oncoming currents.

3. Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (Maryland): The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim offers 2 races across tidal flows that can be tricky. An intensely competitive race, the field quickly fills up to its maximum allotment of swimmers in minutes after its online registration opens. So from registration to the end of the race, fierce competition prevails.

4. Swim Miami (Florida): Like the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, Swim Miami offers a slew of distances for each age group for the highly competitive Floridian aquatic community. A laid-back, festive ambiance does not mask the intensity of competition in the flat, warm waters of southern Florida across all age divisions.

5. Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim (California): A summer classic from one California pier to another [shown below], the competitors of all ages run in, swim across and run out in close proximity to thousands of fellow ocean swimmers after completing a qualifying swim.

6. Big Shoulders Swim (Illinois): Like the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, Big Shoulders attracts swimmers from all across America from young to old, from newbie to veteran in a triangular course where the pace is fast from beginning to end. Occasionally site of a national masters swimming championship, the field includes former Olympians and world and NCAA champions.

7. Tampa Bay Frogman Swim (Florida): An unusual treat in January, competitors face cold water, shifting currents and sight lines that can be a challenge in a relatively new Floridian open water classic. While the primary purpose is to raise money as a charity swim, the participants often show as much intensity as those wounded warriors who they are trying to help.

8. Fear No Pier (California): This long, difficult stage swim requires swimmers to go down the California coast swimming around short piers, often in cold, rough water. Most swimmers cannot complete the entire circuit of 54 piers although most swims venture out into the Pacific Ocean only a few hundred yards. But an extraordinarily high bar is set.

9. Chris Greene Lake Cable Swim (Virginia): Fast, competitive swimmers in the hundreds have been racing 1 or 2 miles around Chris Green Lake for decades. With swimmers of all ages trying to take the best lines possible, physicality and competition are as obvious as are the smiles and camaraderie at the end of the race.

10. La Jolla Rough Water Swim (California): The La Jolla Rough Water Swim showcases the largest domestic field in the United States, but each age group division has its own distances from the young children to the famed Gatorman race in the coolish Pacific Ocean waters that was inhabited by plentiful marine life and occasional swells and large surf at the finish.

While every open water swim can be hectic on race day, the reverse is also true. Turbulence the day before the race can turn to tranquility on race day. Tower 26 founder Gerry Rodrigues accurately summed up the vagarancies of the sport. “I never really had any hard swims, just tough conditions at times due to wind, chop, currents, surf, etc. But I will state that one way I prepared for tough conditions was by training in open water in the afternoons and evenings when winds are up. [This] makes conditions challenging and helps build power for the open water.”

Alex Kostich, one of the world’s most traveled and experienced ocean swimmer, recalls his favorites. “I would say the most competitive, challenging, cold and strategic – hardest in that way – would be the RCP Tiburon Mile with a close second being the Waikiki Roughwater Swim.”

Photo above shows Taylor Spivey winning the 2011 Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim in Manhattan Beach, California.

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Steven Munatones