Athletes of every generation have demonstrated the ability to create worldwide controversy and revved up the raging emotions of sporting fans.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Mike Tyson bit off the ear of Evander Holyfield in a boxing match. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the murder of his former wife and her friend. Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs and intimidated individuals who questioned the legality of his actions.
These athletes – and others like them – have set off the media and ignited the nerve of the general public for various reasons, from making political statements to fixing games for betting purposes. But life inevitably goes on and these athletes – like non-athletes everywhere – continue on with their lives. And so it is with Lance Armstrong who entered a U.S. Masters Swimming-sanctioned pool event. After FINA strongly came out against his participation, U.S. Masters Swimming barred from participating in its sanctioned event (see here).
The marathon swimming community (see here) and others in the U.S. Masters Swimming pool swimming community (see here) have largely welcomed Armstrong being barred from competition. While this issue raging on in online forums, pool decks and coffee shops, Armstrong’s desire to swim in an amateur adult pool swimming event raised a few thoughts related to open water swimming.
In the aquatic world, in fact in the entire endurance sporting world, is there any sport or any aquatic activity that enables second acts, second comings, or second chances in life like open water swimming? We think not. Here are our reasons for thinking so.
From the perspective of competitive swimmers:
Competitive age-group swimmers, not to mention high school and collegiate swimmers, train hard 6 days per week, spending up to 2 hours in the morning before school and another 2+ hours after school swimming. Lap after lap, month after month, year after year. After all those thousands of hours spent with their head down swimming back and forth in a chlorinated pool, their aquatic careers are often dictated by seconds and tenths of seconds. Swim a best time and they are happy. Miss a qualification time and the season ends in disappointment. Many of these swimmers eventually burn out and quit the sport. They move on, sometimes to do other sports, but also many just stop exercising at least for a while.
But they are also individuals who enjoy challenges and have the discipline to achieve other goals in life. Many of these individuals eventually make their way back to swimming and they find participation in open water swims are a perfect blend of low-stress competition and a fitness motivator while they can enjoy the outdoors and the camaraderie of others.
So for retired competitive swimmers who are drawn back to the water, open water swimming presents an ideal opportunity for a second chance at athletic competition.
From the perspective of long distance freestyle swimmers:
The world of pool swimming is extremely competitive. In the United States, there are more than 300,000 competitive swimmers, but fewer than 50 of them make the Olympic team. In the United States, there are over 280,000 students who swim on their high school team, but fewer than 1,000 of those students eventually receive a college scholarship for swimming. The chances of making an Olympic team or receiving a college scholarship are even (dramatically) lower for a distance swimmer since there are fewer distance swimming events (500y, 1650y, 800m, 1500m) than the shorter-distance events at every level.
While many swimmers do not train and compete with the Olympics or a college scholarship as their primary goals, these finely-trained athletes are well-positioned to swim further and in tougher conditions in the open water than their sprinting colleagues. Many of these individuals find that they are very well-suited to just getting out in the open water and letting it rip for a mile, two miles, three miles and more. No flip turns, no dive starts, no counting of laps or worry about split times. They can just swim and swim and swim in the dynamic environment of the world’s oceans, lakes and river.
So for long distance freestyle swimmers, who have developed the strength and stamina in the pool but without Olympic speed, open water swimming presents an ideal opportunity for a second chance at athletic competition.
From the perspective of women who pre-dated the Title IX legislation in the United States:
Decades ago, American women who are now in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s did not have the same opportunities for collegiate competition as young women in contemporary times. The Title IX legislation opened the door for many young women who enjoy the challenge, thrill and camaraderie of athletic competitions.
But when the demographics of open water swimming are analyzed, the number of women over 50 years old are seen flocking to the sport. They enjoy the camaraderie and competition of sport as well as the opportunity to challenge themselves outdoors with the presence of others as themselves.
So for women in the second half of their lives, open water swimming presents an ideal opportunity for a second chance at athletic competition.
From the perspective of individuals who learned how to swim as adults:
The sport of triathlons is booming. It is absolutely exploding like marathon running did in the 1970’s. This fact and the fact that an aging population is finding the aches and pains of high-stress endurance sports like running is no longer an option are reasons why many adults are now turning to swimming.
Many adults who learn to swim in the latter stages of their life are usually not looking to do a butterfly race or practicing track starts off of a diving block. Individual medley, aerobic threshold sets, and shaving down for meets are not in their fitness plans. They just want to learn how to swim efficiently. They usually want to learn how to feel fluid and swim efficiently in the water.
It is these individuals who become competent and confident enough in themselves who are looking for a competition. But they prefer not to stand alone on a diving block at a swim meet. Rather they enjoy participation in a mass start where they can blend into the crowd and enjoy an achievement with many others. For many of these individuals, they did not compete competitively in sports as teenagers, but they enjoy participating in a stress-free celebration of open water swimming.
So for these adult-onset swimmers, open water swimming presents an ideal opportunity for a chance at athletic participation in the second half of their life.
Open water swimming for various reasons and for many individuals presents a comeback of sorts. Swims in oceans, lakes and rivers offers a unique low-stress, fun-filled, camaraderie-driven, self-satisfying means to triumph against nature, rally from years of relentlessly tough pool workouts, recover from years of poor health, or enjoy a resurgence from prior athletic participation. It revives the soul and strengthens the body, especially refreshing for those who wish for and looking at a second act, second coming, or second chance.
* Lance Armstrong has been banned by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, and is ineligible for any World Anti-Doping Agency member or affiliated competition including those events sanctioned by U.S. Masters Swimming and the American Swimming Association.
Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association