World open water swimming records are not kept by FINA for various reasons including because of the dynamic nature of open water venues. Competitions over the same distance differ in water conditions and temperature, weather and wind, marine life, the position and number of feeding pontoons, the number of swimmers, the position and number of turn buoys, course shape, use of a lead boat, currents, tides and surface chop.

All of these dynamic variables can have a direct and significant impact on the overall times of the swimmers.

To demonstrate this point, we reviewed the men’s 10 km winning times at each of the races on the 2009 FINA 10KM Marathon Swimming World Cup professional circuit. The winning times ranged from 1 hour 34 minutes to 2 hours 5 minutes, a remarkable 31-minute time differential among the same athletes swimming the same GPS-marked distance:

Setubal (Portugal): Thomas Lurz 1:34:16
Dubai (UAE): Thomas Lurz 1:44:53
New York (USA): Thomas Lurz 1:47:41
Sharjah (UAE): Trent Grimsey 1:48:17
Lake Annecy (France): Thomas Lurz 1:52:08
Chun An (China): Thomas Lurz 1:55:10
Lac St-Jean (Canada): Alexander Studzinski 1:57:25
Copenhagen (Denmark): Thomas Lurz 1:57.40
Hong Kong: Thomas Lurz 1:58:22
Varna (Bulgaria): Thomas Lurz 2:01:31
Shantou (China): Thomas Lurz 2:03:15
Santos (Brazil): Simone Ercoli 2:05:44

Even when we reviewed the winning times on the exact same course year-to-year (2008 vs. 2009), there are still significant differences in the winning times:

Hong Kong: 1:46:1 in 2008 vs. 1:58.2 in 2009
Shantou: 2:06:5 in 2008 vs. 2:03.1 in 2009
Lac St-Jean: 2:04:1 in 2008 vs. 1:57.2 in 2009
Setubal: 1:52:4 in 2008 vs. 1:34:16 in 2009
Dubai: 1:48:5 in 2008 vs. 1:44:5 in 2009
Santos: 1:58:42 in 2008 vs. 2:05:44 in 2009

So rather than time or records, finishing first is the goal of elite open water swimmers. After his 2009 world championship victory in Rome, Thomas Lurz answered a question from the media about why he swam off-course, “My goal was to finish first, not to be worried how far or where I swam.”

Although FINA does not recognize records for its 5 km, 5 km Team Pursuit, 10 km, 25 km and Grand Prix events (that can range up to 88 km / 54 miles), there are many other governing bodies in the open water swimming world that maintain records. Numerous records are maintained in the English Channel, Catalina Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Cook Strait, Molokai Channel, Tsugaru Channel and North Channel.

There are a number of interesting differences between the pool and open water swimming records:

1. While pool records are held separately for both men and women, the channel swimming world generally mixes the genders together and only recognizes the fastest crossing regardless of gender.
2. While pool records are held for 2 different types of relay records (medley and freestyle relays), relay records in the open water swimming world include all kinds of categories: male, female, mixed, masters, juniors, and number of relay members.
3. While pool records include age-group categories for masters swimmers, channel records include records for oldest and youngest swimmers and relays.
4. While pool records are well-defined by stroke (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle and individual medley) and distance (50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m), the channel swimming world recognizes the earliest crossing in a season, the latest crossing completed in a season, the longest time in the water, most prolific swimmers, and the date of the first crossing – and the direction of the crossing as well as two-way and three-way crossings.

Of course, while records are great, the self-satisfaction and sense of achievement for open water swimmers can be profound for those of any age or ability. For all those open water swimmers who stuggle to finish a 1-mile swim or those marathon swimmers who literally crawl onto shore, making it and finishing a swim and crossing the finish line are truly rewards in themselves.

Photo by Phil White of Kingdom Games.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association