While FINA professional marathon races are usually limited to 80 or fewer athletes, a large majority of amateur swims are flooded with much greater numbers of participants. While FINA-sanctioned races have sufficient boats and safety personnel for each swimmer throughout the course in the post-2010 era, this is not the case with almost every other amateur swim (bar swims where each swimmer is escorted by their own crew).
In a review of the 29 deaths that have occurred since 2010, a majority of victims who ultimately died in the race were first seen or assisted by a fellow swimmer. In other words, the first responder is usually another swimmer. So the question arises, are all swimmers in a given race even aware of this situation? Do they know that there is a greater possibility of them saving a fellow swimmer – at least initially – than the race officials? Are they aware of danger signs in the water, what the risks are, or what to do in an emergency?
USA Swimming, as only one example of the good work done by many national governing bodies, educates its membership in a variety of ways through camps, clinics and coaching education programs. FINA often does the same. To its credit, USA Swimming also established maximum water temperature for open water competitions and mandated stringent safety procedures including greater number of safety vessels and independent monitors. Sometimes, this leads to races being cancelled or modified. Sometimes, races do not even get sanctioned. As a result, the level of safety awareness has increased and the safety net improved.
And none too late.
FINA similarly revised its own policies and rules. Some of the rules were influenced by the recommendations of the Pound Commission that concluded its report in 2011; some were a result of FINA’s own investigations and conclusions. Ten days before the 2012 London Olympics, the FINA Bureau – the ultimate rule-making body in the global institution – passed its own separate set of rules.
USA Swimming New Rules
USA Swimming passed new rules in September 2011 that specifically addressed maximum water temperatures and added consideration for warm air temperatures:
702.2 WATER/AIR TEMPERATURE — The race shall not begin if the following conditions are not satisfied:
.1 The water temperature shall not be less than 16°C (60.8°F).
.2 For races of 5K and above, the water temperature shall not exceed 29.45°C (85°F).
.3 The air temperature and water temperature when added together shall not be less than 30°C (118°F) nor greater than 63°C (177.4°F)
FINA’s New Rules (passed in July 2012)
FINA’s new open water safety regulations approved in July included the following:
4.7 Water Temperature
(a) The water temperature shall be measured 2 hours before the start of the race and must be a minimum of 16°C and a maximum of 31°C. The water temperature shall be certified by the FINA Safety Delegate and the HMF/OC Safety Officer as measured in the middle of the course, at a depth of 40 centimeters.
(b) The water temperature shall be monitored as provided above at one-hour intervals during the race. If the water temperature drops below 16°C or exceeds 31°C at any one of the measuring intervals, the water temperature shall be measured again in 30 minutes and if that measurement is also below 16°C or exceeds 31°C the race must be stopped.
i The minimum and the maximum temperatures are under a study by the specialized University of Otago (NZL) as requested by FINA, IOC and ITU [International Triathlon Union]; when the results of this study are available, this Regulation will be amended accordingly.
Putting 31°C Into Perspective
To put these temperatures in perspective, imagine a swimming pool at 85°F (29.4°C). Even at 82°F or 83°F, performances start to suffer in a pool. At those temperatures, coaches constantly hear complaints that “the water is too hot” from their swimmers. Coaches use aerators and move workouts to the early morning or evening to avoid pool temperatures that are too warm.
Now imagine doing 100 x 100 on an interval where you get very little rest in a pool where the water is 85°F…on a humid, cloudless day. How tough would that be? Any coach can easily imagine problems with heat stress among his athletes under those conditions.
Now imagine if the temperature of the pool was 87.8°F (31°C)…for a race.
Now add to this increasingly hazardous situation the well-known fact among open water swimmers that the temperature of fresh water always feels cooler than the same temperature of salt water. That is, 80°F in fresh water does not feel like 80°F in salt water. The fresh water feels cooler. Flipped around, the salt water feels WARMER. That is, 80°F in fresh water feels more like 82-83°F in salt water depending on the amount of solar radiation. This is not the opinion solely of this writer, but a well-accepted understanding from experienced open water swimmers.
So essentially that 87.8°F in a fresh water pool feels more like 89-90°F in the ocean, sea or estuary.
Now imagine racing 5,000 meters or 10,000 meters or 25,000 meters in 89-90°F. Pool swimming coaches would not stand for it; parents would complain; and athletes would – out of pure physiologically necessity – purposefully slow down and complain until the coach relented.
This is what is happening in the open water world.
FINA institutionalized rules that include a maximum water temperature of 31°C (87.8°F). But there is a caveat, a very important caveat. In the case of USA Swimming, the maximum water temperature is 29.45° C (85°F). No questions asked. Danger identified. Danger documented. Race stopped. Game over. Swimmers go home.
In contrast under FINA rules, the water temperature is monitored at one-hour intervals during the race. If the water temperature drops below 16°C or exceeds 31°C during one of these one-hour intervals, the race is not stopped. The race continues. The swimmers are still asked to race.
The race officials are instructed by FINA to wait another 30 minutes and then take a second measurement. If that second measurement is below 31°C, the race continues. If the measurement exceeds 31°C then the race is stopped.
Experienced swimmers know that when the water temperatures rise up to 31°C, then the air temperature tends to be even higher than 31°C. And it is occasionally accompanied by high humidity. As a result, swimmers and coaches around the world do not believe that the new FINA rule is ENHANCING the safety of open water athletes. Not for a second.
Athletes know it. Athletes instinctively understand the tremendous physiological stress placed on their bodies under this scenario. It is like swimming through a furnace. Every breath fills the lungs with warm water, the body cannot perspire and cannot physiologically adapt to the cumulative heat forces on their bodies.
Less than two years after the death of Fran Crippen, why is FINA deciding on a figure that is obviously not helping improve safety?
The Right Answers
To be fair, neither FINA nor the open water swimming community has conducted sufficient research to arrive at the optimal maximum temperature levels. While military agencies around the world have done so, the global aquatic community has not. So decisions go around and around the table and no one knows for sure if 29°C or 30°C or 31°C or 32°C is the right number. There simply is not enough data to properly pinpoint and scientifically institutionalize as the optimal number.
And that is scary.
Under this current scenario where neither FINA nor the global open water swimming community knows the RIGHT number, why does FINA chose a number that is obviously high? Is it not better to be conservative and play it safe – or safer? Why risk – even with remote possibilities – another tragedy?
Every competitive swimmer in the world will explain to any administrator that 31°C is too high. If the athletes believe and know this, why isn’t FINA listening? Its decision and unwillingness to listen to the athletes who are putting themselves at risk is puzzling.
This decision to select 31°C is especially puzzling because few races on the current FINA World Cup and Grand Prix circuits have the possibility to get up at water temperatures this high. Whether a swim is in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Macedonia, or Serbia, the water temperature is traditionally not at this level. The water in Mexico and China has a greater possibility to be warmer, but usually, the water has been significantly cooler than 31°C.
So why choose 31°C?
Is it a magic number? Is it the maximum temperatures that researchers say is safe? Why push athletes to such extremes?
Can FINA provide these answers?
If not, there is no justification to institutionalize a rule that allows world-class athletes to race 5 km, 10 km and 25 km in water temperatures up to (and above) 31°C. Just because there might NOT be a problem is not sufficient justification to select this high number.
Be conservative until there is more data. Play it safe.
If there is no realistic possibility of cancelling any races on the current FINA Grand Prix or World Cup series, there should be no problems modifying this rule.
A modification of the rule should be as easy as the implementation of this rule in the first place.
Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association