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Open water: the antidote to sprint relays?

February 26, 2013

Back in the late 80s, when the sprint relays, 4×50 medley and 4×50 freestyle, were introduced to NCAA championships there was a lot of concern about whether or not this would undermine distance swimming in United States. The mathematics was simple, by adding 2 relays (and their associated points) to the equation, sprinters became far more valuable than distance swimmers. Because there were now more opportunities for fast twitch fiber possessing individuals, sprinters inherently became more versatile. Two consequences were expected: 1) less distance swimmers would be recruited and offered scholarships and more sprinters would take their places, And 2) There would be a decline in United States swimming’s international success in distance races.

While it is no doubt true that there are now more scholarship spots occupied by sprint swimmers as opposed to distance swimmers, the other consequence, that we would lose prominence international distance races is less clear. On the women’s side we had Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett occupying top spots in the international competitions during the 90s and the last decades crop of dominant women such as Katie Hoff, Kate Ziegler and Katie Ledecky (and Eva Fabian and Christine Jennings in open water). However, on the men’s side there were number of years that saw very few American male swimmers succeeding in international distance competition. Recent years, American men have fared better with Larson Jensen, Chris Thompson, Fran Crippen, Alex Meyer and others leading a resurgence in United States men’s endurance swimming. Despite our recent success it is hard not to look at the Australians and the dominance of their men in international endurance swimming and wonder if there is not something to learn.

A culture of distance swimming
One of the popular explanations for Australian men’s dominance in distance-learning is this superstar status of swimmers in general and the cultural significance of open water racing to Australian people. This is a compelling hypothesis and many of us in the distance Swimming community have been interested in how we might create such a culture in our own country. Members of USA swimming have responded to this idea by hosting more and more open water swimming events in the hopes that “if we build it they will come”. In parallel with the growth of open water opportunities for youth swimmers we have seen an enormous increase in open water opportunities for adult swimmers. Part of this is a result of the growth of the sport of triathlon in United States and part is simply a growth in open water swimmings popularity amongst the American population in general. Interestingly, there seems to be rather little overlap between youth open water swimming and adult open water swimming races. This makes sense given the short summer season for youth swimmers and the emphasis on performance in pool racing. For a serious youth swimmer, a weekend spent open water racing needs to be productive, i.e. it cannot be lost training time. Perhaps more importantly, it must be scheduled at the right time of the season, so as not to compromise pool successes.

The time of opportunity
At time when Olympic sports such as wrestling are being cut from the international scorecard open water swimming is on the rise. There’s also a strong World Cup swimming circuit with prize money for top performers and the open water culture in the U.S. is gaining momentum – in both youth and adult swimming. However, youth open water swimming is still very much an afterthought for year-round swimmers in the US. Our meets are only successful when we squeeze them into the pool schedule. Perhaps it is time to take a next step? By increasing emphasis in open water opportunities via camps, junior national open water races, and regional races that complement our pool swimming schedule, we can enhance the value of open water and endurance swimming in general. I do not know if this will “save US distance swimming”, nor am I convinced that it needs to be saved at all. However, the time is ripe for international open water competition, and the building blocks are in place for youth swimming in the USA to set the foundation for our swimmers to rise to the same international prominence achieved by their counterparts in other countries.

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From → Open Water, Swimming

One Comment
  1. Grant permalink

    I think the key to developing the open water piece is to bring Open Water into meets like State and Sectional Championships. This is difficult logistically, but if they can be held the day before and the whole team can attend to cheer and support, the sport will grow and growth is what is needed to maintain the current dominance that the US women have shown in Open Water. The one danger is that this is another place where too much, too young will be a temptation for coaches.

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