Below are general observations of some interesting differences between swimming in the open water in the 20th and 21st centuries:
In the 20th century, young people used to swim and then enter the workforce. In the 21st century, many (most?) swimmers now enter the workforce first and then begin swimming marathons.
In the 20th century, swimmers were much younger, by at least a few decades on average, when they hit the peak of their marathon/channel swimming career. In the 21st century, swimmers are much older when they do marathon/channel swims.
In the 20th century, parents used to cheer on their children doing marathon/channel swims. In the 21st century, children cheer on their parents and, many times, their grandparents.
In the 20th century, a high school or neighborhood buddy was the paddler or kayaker. If it were foggy or rainy or swum at night, everyone just hoped they were swimming in the generally correct direction.
In the 21st century, experienced teams of veteran pilots, crew members and kayakers, armed with GPS and a plethora of predictive and actual weather conditions, guide swimmers right on the rhumb line and often finish within meters of the best course available.
In the 20th century, common thought was that a quick sip about once an hour was sufficient. In the 21st century, nutritionists and detailed feeding plans with specially marked bottles and baggies with nutritionally balanced hydration and feeds are the norm.
In the 20th century without social media and without any kind of expected public recognition, swimmers swam without expectation anyone would pay attention. In the 21st century with social media and all kinds of public recognition and different kinds of media outlets from blogs to podcasts to Facebook Live, swimmers swim with higher expectations and greater pressures.
In the 20th century, some channel swimmers swam towards car headlights that were pointed out towards the sea during night finishes. In the 21st century, GPS navigation helps many swimmers finish right smack on the optimal line to the finish.
In the 20th century, swimmers may have taken a Polaroid photo at the end of their swim – in some cases if they were lucky. In the 21st century, digital photos, videos and Facebook Live, as well as near real-time GPS readings and wind, weather and water conditions, are taken, shared and archived digitally for immediate consumption and for future generations on blogs, social media platforms and websites.
Phil White, race director of the 40.2 km In Search of Memphre, a cross-border swim of Lake Memphremagog, has his feet firmly planted in the 20th century. “We remain old school with The Search. We give the swimmers a chart [see above] and offer some guidance with beacons during the night-time portion of the swim. We tell swimmers to stay in the middle of the lake and away from the tricky currents in the bays near the shore.
Sarah Thomas commented on this old-school approach for her two-way 50-mile crossing completed in 30 hours 1 minute in 2013 compared with how her swims has been digitalized on her crossings of Lake Powell (128.7 km in 56 hours 5 minutes in 2016) and Lake Champlain (168.3 km in 67 hours 16 minutes in 2017), both in terms of the navionics for her to navigate and the tracker for others to follow her.”
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