What Is Impeding In Open Water Swimming?

What Is Impeding In Open Water Swimming?

As in surfing, short track speed skating, boating and car racing, open water swimming has generally accepted etiquette and rules governing impeding, obstruction and overtaking another competitor.

However, understanding and officiating these rules varies from race to race, from referee to referee, and from country to country. What is legal in one race or in one country is not acceptable in another. What is illegal in one race can be commonplace in another.

The primary reasoning for this non-uniform situation is that officiating and rules are not yet standardize throughout the global open water swimming community. Secondarily, the understanding of the etiquette and reasoning behind these rules are also not universally known.

The two basic types of violations of rules in open water swimming include impeding and unsportsmanlike conduct. A judgment on unsportsmanlike conduct by an athlete is relatively easy compared with an impeding rule violation. While a punch, kick, elbow, zipline or other kind of pull-back are clear examples of unsportsmanlike conduct, what exactly is the definition of impeding?

Is it veering into another swimmer? If so, by how much and over what period of time? Can it be an unintentional act by a swimmer who simply cannot swim straight or is it always an intentional act by a swimmer? Is it swimming over the feet of another swimmer? Or does impeding have to be over their legs or hips or back? Does it included getting tangled up around the turn buoys or getting arms crossed among swimmers? Does it include bumping and does the bumping have to be intentional or can it be unintentional? Does it include an unintentional touching of a swimmer’s feet or does it require the incessant tapping on the soles of the swimmer in the lead?

It is generally accepted in marine sports including open water swimming that the athlete in the lead has the right of way (or in the case of surfing, the surfer taking off on a wave who is closest to the peak of the wave). Logically, this makes sense as the athlete (surfer, skater, swimmer, driver or boater) has earned their way into the lead either by qualifying faster, sprinting out to the lead, or positioning themselves in a better position.

In boating, it is understood that vessels overtaking another vessel shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken. This is also the generally accepted ruling in the open water swimming world. That is, a swimmer from behind cannot swim over or across the feet, legs, hips or back of a swimmer ahead of them. It is further defined and understood in the boating world that a vessel is deemed to be overtaking when coming up with a another vessel from a direction more than 22.5º abaft her beam.

In surfing, a surfer closest to the peak of the wave has the right of way and other surfers are expected to move out of the way. It is poor etiquette to cut in front of another surfer who takes off earlier and is a rule violation in competitive situations.

In short-track speed skating, if a skater bumps another skater who could have have won the race, then the skater who did the bumping gets disqualified and the skater who gets bumped advances. Speed skating has many accepted rules and etiquette similar to open water swimming. And speed skating has as many controversies as open water swimming when athletes are penalized for rule infractions.

Similar to open water swimming, impeding in speed skating occurs when an athlete hinders another skaters progress. This can happen by bumping or pushing another skater or throwing off their stride in some way. A tiny bump can throw off another skater’s stride, making them slow down in order to regain their balance and rhythm. the same is true in the open water swimming world.

But as in open water swimming, touching other athletes is unavoidable especially at the start. It is up to the referee’s discretion to decide whether a touch was accidental or it impeded another athlete’s progress.

In what may be the most controversial decisions in officiating both on the short track and in the open water is the type of impeding that occurs when a skater or swimmer blocks someone from passing. In speed skating, the impeding skater slows down or sticks an arm out in front of a passing skater. This also happens by accident during passing especially if the impeding skater just lost their balance for a split second. Most skaters do not impede on purpose, but purposefully impeding does happen in open water swimming. But in a vast majority of cases, the impeding is unintentional and may simply be a matter of one swimmer swimming crookedly.

If the referee decides that the impeding was blatantly intentional designed to injure, the impeding skater can be thrown out of competition. Similarly, open water swimming officials can do the same in open water swimming. But it is and extraordinarily difficult responsibility to determine whether or not the act of impeding another swimmer is intentional or not.

When skaters are racing, there are lanes like traffic lanes called tracks which the skaters skates in. The tracks are assumed and not marked by visible lines. Similar to traffic lanes on the highway, the rules of traffic apply. A person driving (or skating) can change lanes, but they can’t cut people off. For experienced open water swimming referees, this similar thought process and officiating mentality applies. That is, if the lead swimmer is seen “changing tracks” or “cross-tracking” as cutting people off in short track is called, he will be called for impeding. When two skaters are racing neck in neck and one skater gains a small lead but then he suddenly jumps his track and skates in front of the other skater, it is cross-tracking. A skater is allowed to pass and skate in front of another skater, but it is illegal if the trailing skater has to slow down abruptly in order to avoid a fall. Similarly, if a lead swimmer changing tracks and the trailing swimmer has to slow down abruptly, then this action by the lead swimmer can be called for impeding. However, if the lead swimmer does not change tracks and the trailing swimmer swims over his legs, waist or back, then the action by the trailing swimmer can be called for impeding.

There are also innumerable other examples of impeding, two of which are shown here.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones