Great swimmers are judged in the pool fundamentally and specifically by one parameter: speed.

What are their best times? How fast are they? Did they set world and Olympic records? Did they win national, continental, world and Olympic races? Are they the best in their age-group, in history, or during their era?

Speed or times are, more or less, a simple measure of humans, but pools have helped. Pools become faster by reducing turbulence through better and more lane lines, increasing the depth of the pool and width of the lanes, and improving the starting blocks and circulation systems.

Swimming times and speeds have increased with better stroke techniques, stronger bodies, improved training, better equipment (from goggles to high-tech swimsuits), improved nutrition and even ease of getting from one place to another via modern transportation.

So the greatest swimmers in the world are judged because they are quite simply the fastest. Men like Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, Murray Rose, Don Schollander, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Ian Thorpe, and Michael Phelps. Women like Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, Mary T. Meagher, Janet Evans, Krisztina Egerszegi, Leisel Jones, Laure Manaudou, Stephanie Rice and Missy Franklin.

But are there other parameters?

We think so, many other parameters. The open water swimming world believes there are many ways to judge great swimmers.

The ability to withstand the elements from the cold to the warm, from the rough to the marine life are parameters in which great open water swimmers are judged.

The ability to swim for miles and miles, hours and hours, and in some cases for days under constantly changing conditions are another parameters.

The ability to swim at night and swim straight or find the most optimal course when there are lateral or oncoming currents (i.e., one’s navigational IQ) are other parameters.

The ability to withstand jellyfish stings, hypothermia, night blindness, and the ravaging effects of salt water exposure are other parameters.

The ability to overcome the physicality of one’s competitors in a race or around turn buoys and to sprint fast at the end of a marathon swim are other parameters.

The ability to eat and drink and excrete waste products while swimming as are the abilities to bodysurf, railroad, draft, pace and position during a race are other parameters.

The ability to organize, plan and execute an unprecedented swim that has never been done before is another parameter.

When the pool swimmers are judged in venues that are controlled for water temperature, depth, clarity, turbulence, speed and time is important. The same is true for open water swimmers…which the addition of myriad other parameters.

So while pool swimming is at its most fundamental essence simple to judge, open water swimming presents many more variables and ways to judge greatness.

When we think of great open water swimmers, we think of the following for their outstanding abilities:

Cold water: Lynne Cox and Lewis Pugh
Rough water: Shelley Taylor-Smith and Abdul Latif Abou Heif
Jellyfish: Anne Marie Ward and Adam Walker
Duration: Vicki Keith and Kevin Murphy
Navigational IQ: Keri-Anne Payne and Petar Stoychev
Speed: John Kinsella and Penny Dean
Physicality: Éva Risztov and Valerio Cleri
Pacing: Angela Maurer and Thomas Lurz
Sprinting: Larisa Ilchenko and Maarten van der Weijden
New swims: Penny Palfrey and David Yudovin
Bodysurfing: Kathy Shipman and Ky Hurst

So if there is basically one way to judge greatness in the pool, there are conversely many different ways to judge greatness in the open water.

Photo shows Olympic swimmers Duke Kahanamoku (far left), Buster Crabbe (second from left), Stubby Kruger (second from right), and Johnny Weissmuller (far right).

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association