How Does One Judge Greatness In The Open Water?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Swimming World Magazine named Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha as its 2019 Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year for her remarkable year of racing on the FINA/CNSG Marathon Swim World Series and at the 2019 FINA World Championships.

But her award comes just a few months after Sarah Thomas completed the first four-way crossing of the English Channel in 54 hours 10 minutes – a feat so remarkable that marathon swimmers are still wrapping their heads about the audacious swim.

Sally Minty-Gravett raised a point about how Cunha can be compared to Thomas and questioned how one could be singled out over all other open water swimmers.

There is a history and objective of Swimming World Magazine’s annual awards.

Swimming World Magazine has long focused on competition, specifically pool swimming, since its origins in the early 1950’s. Bob Kiphuth, the Olympic swimming coach from Yale University and an International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Coach, published the first 10 years of Swimming World Magazine (1951 – 1961). Coach Kiphuth was a competitive individual: he coached his Yale swimmers to 528 wins and only 12 losses, along with four NCAA titles (in 1942, 1944, 1951, 1953). Kiphuth also served as the head coach for multiple U.S. Olympic swimming teams (both men and women).

Another American Olympic coach Peter Daland, who served as Kiphuth’s assistant until 1956, started a mimeograph/newsletter called Junior Swimmer. He also helped Kiphuth compile and publish a mimeographed journal under the moniker, Swimming World, beginning in 1952.

In 1960, Albert Schoenfeld took over the Junior Swimmer newsletter and later merged it with Swimming World in June 1961.

The new magazine was then called Junior Swimmer-Swimming World – and that publication has continued in its current form as Swimming World Magazine.

Swimming World Magazine has always focused on competitive pool swimming ever since its origins,” explains Steven Munatones. “Over the decades, it has also reported on domestic and international water polo competitions and players, synchronized swimmers, divers and everything aquatic from swimming techniques to age group rankings and race results of major competitions.

The magazine began regular monthly coverage of open water swimming and open water swimmers in the 1980’s, including articles on solo swimmers from Lynne Cox’s Bering Strait swim to Philip Rush’s three-way English Channel crossing.

In 2005, the magazine began naming Male and Female Open Water Swimmers of the Year. Although various world championships in marathon swimming and long distance swimming had been conducted from Windermere in the UK to Capri-Napoli in Italy, it was in 2005 that the International Olympic Committee voted to include the 10 km marathon swim in the Summer Olympics.

That year, Swimming World Magazine began its tradition to name the world’s fastest swimmers as its Male and Female Open Water Swimmers of the Year. It made sense as a competitively-focused publication to recognize the fastest swimmers in the open water.

So traditionally, the Swimmer of the Year has been the world’s fastest 10 km male and female swimmers – although the publication has long written articles and given recognition to solo swimmers from Captain Matthew Webb to Doc Counsilman and Sarah Thomas over the decades.

So when considering the roots and aim of the award and the historical objective of the publication, it is not surprising that Ana Marcela Cunha was selected over Sarah Thomas in 2019.

Sarah’s achievement is – and will remain for generations (and centuries) to come – one of the most iconic achievements in the history of the sport of open water swimming. Sarah herself has become one of the most heralded icons not only in the channel and marathon swimming world, but also among all extreme sport athletes and among cancer survivors.

Personally, I would rank Sarah’s achievement as heroic and as unlikely (at least from the perspective of normal humans) as the 10 km gold medal performance of leukemia survivor Maarten van der Weijden at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. These two individuals stand (swim) so far outside (above and beyond) the bounds of normal human achievement that their swims will remain inspirational for all time.

Just as you cannot compare Sarah’s achievement against Ana’s race results – her 4-way English Channel crossing is an entirely different niche compared to the feats of ice swimmers like Petar Stoychev or Jaimie Monahan.

Without a doubt, Thomas’ achievement will be heralded inside and outside the global open water swimming community as the awards season begins in earnest.

The open water swimming community recognizes swimmers who are the oldest, the most prolific, the fastest, the slowest, the highest, as well as swimmers who swim the longest (in duration and distance), the fastest in different directions in the same channel or around an island, in freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly, two times, three times and four times across, and in male, female and disabled categories.

It is great that all these luminaries in the sport will be – and are – recognized and honored for their achievements.

For example, I consider the Honor Swimmers in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame to be of four basic types:

1. Racers: These are the fastest marathon swimmers – like Ana Marcela Cunha – who win major international competitions.
2. Pioneers: These are people who swim in locations that have never been swum before – like Captain Matthew Webb.
3. Endurers: These are people who swim for incredible distances – like Sarah Thomas – that simply boggle the mind.
4. Recordsetters: These are fast swimmers who break the records of swimmers who have swum before them
.”

Swimming World Magazine Female Open Water Swimmers of the Year:
2005 Edith van Dijk (Netherlands)
2006 Larisa Ilchenko (Russia)
2007 Larisa Ilchenko (Russia)
2008 Larisa Ilchenko (Russia)
2009 Keri-Anne Payne (UK)
2010 Martina Grimaldi (Italy)
2011 Keri-Anne Payne (UK)
2012 Éva Risztov (Hungary)
2013 Poliana Okimoto (Brazil)
2014 Sharon van Rouwendaal (Netherlands)
2015 Aurélie Muller (France)
2016 Sharon van Rouwendaal (Netherlands)
2017 Aurélie Muller (France)
2018 Sharon van Rouwendaal (Netherlands)
2019 Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)

Swimming World Magazine Male Open Water Swimmers of the Year:
2005 Thomas Lurz (Germany) and Chip Peterson (USA)
2006 Thomas Lurz (Germany)
2007 Vladimir Dyatchin (Russia)
2008 Maarten van der Weijden (Netherlands)
2009 Thomas Lurz (Germany)
2010 Valerio Cleri (Italy)
2011 Thomas Lurz (Germany) and Spyridon Gianniotis (Greece)
2012 Oussama Mellouli (Tunisia)
2013 Thomas Lurz (Germany)
2014 Andrew Gemmell (USA)
2015 Jordan Wilimovsky (USA)
2016 Ferry Weertman (Netherlands)
2017 Ferry Weertman (Netherlands)
2018 Kristóf Rasovszky Hungary
2019 Florian Wellbrock (Germany)

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