Physicality, unintentional or not, is part of open water swimming.
Physical contact is due primarily to too many swimmers trying to swim in the same location at the same time, especially at the start, around turn buoys, at feeding stations, and towards the finish.
Bumping, impeding, scratching, pulling, veering into, tapping or touching, slapping, clipping, conking, swiping, whacking, obstructing, ziplining, interfering, pummeling, nudging, punching, kicking, elbowing, pushing, jostling, shoving, crowding, banging, smacking, smashing into or pressing against another swimmer or triathlete happens among athletes of all ages and abilities, and nature of competitions.
Most swimmers shrug off physicality, ignore the situation, and simply chalk up bumping to the inherent nature of the sport. Most acts of physicality, of course, are entirely unintentional as most swimmers cannot swim perfectly straight and the locking of arms and touching of legs happens frequently in the large races.
But there are times when swimmers purposefully act aggressively towards their competitors, and other times, when swimmers intentionally retaliate for some kind of physicality. The act of aggression or retaliation can be a pull back (zipline), an elbow, or a slap on the head. “You have to stand your ground,” says one competitor with a hint of a smile and a penchant for physicality.
While such a mindset is not condoned in age-group, masters or international competitions, such acts are dealt with quickly with warnings, penalties (yellow cards and red cards), or disqualifications when observed by officials.
And that is the primary issue that faces physicality in the sport: the act of physicality must be observed and acknowledged by race officials (referees) for adjudication of the general rules of open water swimming to occur.
That is, physicality must be seen in order to be adjudicated.
But there is so much physicality in a competitive or crowded open water race (or triathlon) that is unseen and is beyond the senses (visual and auditory) of the officials on the race, that the physicality still exists and continues especially as the number of competitors increases.
Sometimes as a form of self-protection and other times as a form of aggression, a handful of swimmers “buzz” their rivals and competitors. To buzz an open water swimmer is to swim very closely and commit an act of physicality on that swimmer as a purposeful act of aggressiveness or in retaliation to a previous act of physicality. It can be a “hey-I-am-here” nudge to the body, a “don’t-mess-with-me” elbow, a “don’t-do-that-again” slap to the head, or a “that-is-totally-unfair” zipline.
There are always consequences to act in an unsportsmanlike manner, but until the sport of open water swimming has developed, trained and certified a suitable number of officials and referees, and the rules and interpretations of the sport are uniformly understood and adjudicated, physicality will remain part of the competitive niches of the sport.
Top three photos are from the 15 km FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix professional race off Isla Cozumel. Bottom photo is from the USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships.
Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association