Canadian Cindy Nicholas, former Queen of the Channel and dual inductee in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Records Meant To Be Broken

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

The worlds of competitive pool swimming and open water swimming are different in a variety of ways regarding the subject of  world records.

World records in the pool are governed by FINA and are limited to strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, individual medley), distances (50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m), and relays (4-athlete single-gender and mixed gender) based on speed.  Fastest time in history = a world record.

In contrast, open water swimming records are not kept by FINA because of the dynamic nature of open water venues.

Competitions, and even the same competition year after year, can differ in actual length, water conditions, water temperature, weather conditions, the presence of jellyfish, the position and number of feeding pontoons, type, number and positioning of escorts, the number of swimmers in the race, the position and number of turn buoys, the shape of the course, use or non-use of a lead boat or kayak, currents, tides, winds and surface chop. All of these variables have a direct 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 circuit. The winning times ranged from 1 hour 34 minutes to 2 hours 5 minutes, a remarkable 31-minute time differential:

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 same course year-to-year (2008 versus 2009 for example), there were still significant differences:

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 FINA World  hampionship 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 world records for its 5 km, 10 km, 25 km events, there are open water swimming organizations that maintain world records for their marathon swims. The English Channel and Catalina Channel fastest times are maintained and touted as world records for those specific venues.

Another important difference between the pool is the more expansive definition of records in the open water swimming community. Records are recognized for not only the fastest swimmers, but also the oldest, the youngest, the most times accomplished (e.g., Queen of the Channel), the earliest completed in a season, the latest completed in a season, the longest time in water, and conditions such as current-assisted and current-neutral.

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