Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

If you do open water swimming, you swim in a wetsuit, right?

That seems to be the standard question and assumption regarding attire worn by open water swimmers.

In discussions with marathon swimmers in California, there is an interesting clash of cultures. These swimmers who so proudly train year-round in the Pacific Ocean in order to build up their acclimatization to the cold water are frequently faced with neighbors, friends, family and co-workers who inaccurately assume they always wear wetsuits in the ocean.

Almost without exception, these swimmers face a general public and posse of friends and must explain that they enjoy the challenge of open water swimming sans neoprene.

An English Channel swimmer from San Diego describes her near daily run-ins with a disbelieving public, even as she emerges from La Jolla Cove during the winter. “In my experience with the general public, open water swimming equals wetsuit swimming every time. I was at a New Year’s Eve party and sadly the host and hostess would tell everyone I swam the English Channel when introduced. Not one person at that party did not ask me the dreaded wetsuit question.”

For her swim buddies who frequent La Jolla on a near daily basis, their personal experiences were all the same. Whether they had crossed the English Channel or simply swim for fitness, 100% of the swimmers are asked if they wear wetsuits whenever open water swimming is the topic of conversation.

A Catalina Channel swimmer was even more blunt when asked if she encountered inquiries about neoprene. “Yes. All the time. People just assume that I wear one of those wussie suits and are shocked when I tell them I don’t. Even if they don’t ask, I usually make a point to say I do all this stuff without a wetsuit. Usually my statement leads to a disbelieving stare and an incredulous gasp or two.”

Two other California swimmers who have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar reiterated, “I am asked about wetsuits constantly. It’s the first thing most people ask. Next would be sharks.”

Yes, we are asked all the time about wetsuits. People look at me as if I am a nut, but I explain that it is necessary for training and acclimation. When the water hits 60°F, it feels almost tropical.”

Another marathon swimmer piped in, “Yes, the default presumption is that I always wear a wetsuit.”

Whether it was swimmers in Southern California or Northern California, the assumptions about wearing wetsuits are the same, “I’d say outside the open water swimming community, 95% of the people who found out I did the English Channel asked their first question about wetsuits. ‘I assume you wore a wetsuit, right?’ Also, tons of those 95%ers were not new people in my life. My entire immediate family thought I was doing it in a wetsuit. They [only] found out otherwise when I showed them the pictures at Christmas, 4 months after my swim. Almost all of my university friends, co-workers, and friends back home asked about wetsuits.”

With 1.9 million triathletes in America and many of them in California, it may not be surprising that the general public believes anyone who enters the oceans wear black wetsuits, but we asked American open water swimmers why they think the general public assumes open water swimmers wear wetsuits. These were the responses:

I think most people associate cold with ocean swimming, so assume that swims of significant duration would take advantage of neoprene. The general population is not familiar with the existence of marathon swimming, much less it’s traditions, something I believe some of us entrenched in the sport take for granted as common knowledge.”

Because most people probably believe the water is too cold for them, thus it is a wetsuit swim. They can’t imagine it any other way. It would never enter their mind to swim in cold water without one.”

I’d guess it’s an assumption that well over half of the general public makes when initially told about marathon swimming.”

Wetsuits were popularized in America during the early 1990s. It may be that the sport of triathlon has shifted the perception of open water swimmers in the eyes of the general public. Says one veteran of channel swimming, “It’s possible that triathlon has influenced the perception of open water swimmers, but it could just as well be the popularization of wetsuits, including widespread use of wetsuits among surfers, paddle boarders, divers, and spear fishermen.”

I believe all of the general public believes everyone wears wetsuits. When I speak of the channel swims I’ve swam I always hear, “You swim in a wetsuit, right?”

The sport of triathlon has shifted the perception of open water swimmers in the eyes of the general public. The TV news reels of local sports, mostly triathlons, show the swimmers in wetsuits. The crowds are drawn to triathlons and so are the sponsor dollars. Wetsuits are worn by swimmers in the events usually seen most in the press. A channel swimmer in contrast, if [in the newspaper] at all, usually warrants a back page inch or two. Besides there is more money in triathlons for equipment allowing for sponsorship and PR. But not so much so for channel swimmers who can get by with a total equipment cost of US$100.”

Bioprene is beautiful.”

I like the way the water feels, cold or not, without the wetsuit and enjoy the challenge of pushing through the cold and going fast enough to stay warm. Some in my swim group wear wetsuits, including my wife when she swims with us. At this point, I don’t ever plan on wearing neoprene and I have taken a stand for myself that I won’t wear neoprene.”

It seems crazy to those who have not done so to swim in sub-60° water without one, so they can’t imagine anyone would do it. San Diego has over a million people, yet some mornings in winter, I’m the first one in the water at the cove. People who live in the area or go to the cove see us in our Speedos and know we do that, yet, if not associated with us probably assume we are swimming a short distance.”

Of the people who ask me about my channel adventures, the majority say, “You wear a wetsuit, don’t you?.’ I suspect triathlon with far more people doing it than open water swimming probably has shaped the public view of ocean swimmers. I think people who participate in either sport (triathlon or open water distance swimming) realize the difference.

I have always believed the general public assumes we were wetsuits because triathletes wear them and that is what the average person sees on TV. That combined with the fact that most people can’t imagine swimming in water much colder than 80°F. I have seen swimmers in wetsuits in pool workouts because they were cold. I have heard these comments in America as well as when I have traveled to other countries.”

When at home or traveling abroad, the question inevitably arises. “Invariably the topic of marathon swimming and training year round in the ocean comes up and the question of wetsuits eventually pops up. Seriously, it never ceases to amaze me how stunned people are that wetsuits are not allowed in our sport. I know for a fact I am not the only one who has experienced this amazement that wetsuits are not worn.”

Photo shows Dr. Otto Thaning who is planning to cross the English Channel at the age of 72 this summer, without a wetsuit adhering to the Channel Rules.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association