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What's Wrong With Marathon Swimming?

An editorial by Scott Zornig, President of the SBCSA

September 7, 2011

As the President of the SBCSA, it is time to write about some things which have been gnawing away at me regarding marathon swimming. Please note that these are just my personal beliefs and do not necessarily reflect those of our board members. I do, however, believe that my thoughts overwhelmingly reflect the beliefs of most marathon swimmers. I am prepared to have my inbox ready for a few emails to the contrary.

Let me begin by saying it is wonderful to see the increased popularity that our sport has enjoyed during the last decade. I know of no other sport which has grown the way marathon swimming has. I did my first marathon swim in 1999 (Catalina) when only 3 of us made the crossing that year. Ten years later there are approximately 25 successful swimmers completing the Catalina channel each year. I swam from Anacapa Island in 2001 and was only the 4th person to complete the swim during a 23 year period. During 2011, the SBCSA has already had 4 successful Anacapa swims with at least 3 more scheduled for this season. The net of it is that our sport has exploded, but with growth come issues.

The Use of Wetsuits in Marathon Swimming

I will admit that I am guilty of wearing a wetsuit in an open water swim. I probably have done a hundred organized open water swims and even a few triathlons over the years, but there were 4 or 5 times in my uneventful master’s career, where I went against my beliefs and wore a wetsuit. I did it, because the race directors allowed it and because most of the athletes in these particular events utilized them due to cold water or for speed purposes. I have never worn a wetsuit in a marathon swim (anything over 10 miles) and never will.

Additionally, the organization which I am President of (SBCSA), allows the use of wetsuits. This is primarily due to legacy issues that the new board inherited. Our board did unanimously vote to adopt a policy which strongly discourages the use of wetsuits and renders people ineligible for any records or firsts. These "Wetsuit assisted" or "performance enhanced" events are labeled as such and are listed on our website separately from successful channel swims. This provision was adopted primarily for the disabled and very special circumstances. Of course, in order for a swim to be approved by the board, a swimmer has to show they are prepared and have experience. A person who requires a wetsuit does not give the board a great deal of confidence in their preparedness. I am happy to report that The SBCSA has not had one person attempt a swim with a wetsuit since establishing this policy.

So I guess some might say that “not only does Scott have skeletons, but they are doing summersaults in his living room” or they might call me a “hypocrite”. I would of course disagree and tell you that with the rare exception (i.e., disabled swimmers), wetsuits do not belong in the sport of marathon or endurance swimming. They should be limited to triathlons and special circumstances.

Merriam-Webster defines swimming “to propel oneself in water by natural means”. Encarta defines swimming “to move or propel yourself unsupported through water using natural means of propulsion” and Wikipedia defines marathon swimming as “a class of open water swimming. Unlike the use of the term for foot-races where the distance is well-defined, the distance of a marathon swim varies from event to event. Tides, surface currents and wind-chop are major determinants of finish-times. For a given course, these factors can vary dramatically from day to day, making meaningless any attempt to draw conclusions about athletic ability by comparing finish times from performances undertaken on different days.” In other words, these definitions clearly show that swimming or marathon swimming, which is our concern, is man and woman against whatever elements God or Mother Nature has decided to challenge you with on a given day. It is not about putting on a five millimeter wetsuit so a swimmer could stay warm or swim faster during their endeavor.

If you have not read the book “Winds, Wave and Sunburn” by Conrad Wennerberg, may I suggest you do so. It provides a brief history of marathon swimming and includes many fascinating stories of successful marathon swims. One thing you won’t find in the book is a story of any swimmer using artificial aids. I also encourage you to read any of Lynne Cox’s books or Penny Lee Dean’s “Open Water Swimming”, “Dover Solo” by Marcia Cleveland, “Swim to Glory-The Story of Marilyn Bell”, “The Great Swim” or “It’s Cold in the Channel”. I think you would be hard pressed to find any book written about marathon or endurance swimming which talks about using artificial aids. Is it because our forefathers and mothers were just tougher than we are or was their goal to establish a sport that was pure?

It seems that our sport was able to stay untainted for the longest time. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was until the 70’s when a few people started using wetsuits. It may have even begun with the “Cuba to Florida” and “Bimini to Florida” channel crossings.

Let me ask you this… other than the deceit part, how is wearing a wetsuit different from the professional cyclists or baseball players who took steroids? Don’t they both enhance performance? Wetsuits provide warmth, buoyancy, protection from the sun, protection from jelly fish stings, protection from pollution and confidence. I once had a person tell me that “when I have my wetsuit on, I feel like I am swimming with a bullet proof vest.” Confidence is huge in marathon swimming. Many times it is the mind which ends a swim as it can break down long before the body does.

Let’s use Lake Tahoe as an example. If I am not mistaken, the generally used marathon course is 21.3 statute miles (Camp Richardson to Incline’s Hyatt Beach). Unlike ocean or brackish water, a Tahoe swimmer cannot derive any buoyancy swimming in the lake. The water temperatures in the summer can range from the high 50’s to the mid 60’s at the absolute highest. The winds and altitude can also be a contributing factor in a success of a swim. I think we all agree that Lake Tahoe provides all the elements, with the exception of scary marine life, for a very challenging marathon swim. If you take two people and put one in a wetsuit while the other has nothing more than a swimsuit, goggles and cap, there is a huge advantage provided to the person with the wetsuit. The assisted swimmer would be warm and toasty while floating on top of the water with the added buoyancy provide by the wetsuit. Not to mention the huge mental edge the wetsuit assisted person gains. I would go as far as saying that a person who made it across Tahoe with a wetsuit would have an extremely difficult time making the same swim without the wetsuit. If they were to somehow make it without the wetsuit, there would be at least an hour difference in the finishing time if not more. The bottom line is that wetsuits enhance performance and increase the chance of success.

Here is the good news…..any person can learn to swim without a wetsuit. It just takes time and practice. I have known plenty of people who used to get hypothermic during a 1 or 2 mile swim, and then go on to swim 20, 30 and even 50 miles in the ocean without a wetsuit. For many years, I swam on weekends with fellow SBCSA board member Lynn Kubasek who is 5’5” and maybe 130lbs. We might do a 30 minute training swim and she would shiver uncontrollably afterwards. Three years ago, she decided to get into marathon swimming. She added 10lbs to her frame and spent countless hours training in the ocean year round. In 2009, she made it across the Catalina channel on her first attempt spending almost 16 hours in 63 degree water. Then, only a few months ago, she was part of a relay team that battled 48 degree water successfully swimming to the Farallon islands. So you see, it can be done! Don’t take the easy way out.

I will end with this: You would not enter a triathlon with a motorized bicycle….You would not play baseball with a corked bat ….You would not play golf with a loaded ball…You would not run in a marathon with roller skates. Therefore, please don’t use a wetsuit in marathon swimming. It provides an unfair advantage and goes against the spirit of our sport.

Bootlegging Swims

The Bootlegging of swims is becoming a problem. I define “Bootlegging” as “Swimming or attempting to swim across a body of water without utilizing the governing organization, where there is a prevailing body, to sanction and ratify the swim.” Some marathon swimmers decide against paying the governing organization and simply do the swim on their own. Race directors in the sport of running and open water swimming have encountered this problem for years. It is now becoming more commonplace in marathon swimming and in my opinion, is not good for our sport.

Please understand that the ocean belongs to everyone and an organization cannot tell you where you can or can’t swim. The purpose of the governing organizations is to monitor the swims, preserve the history and ensure that the swimmer has a safe experience. In order to do this, each organization needs to collect fees and solicit volunteer help. Please note that the majority of these organizations have a nonprofit status. In other words, the sanctioning organizations are not doing it for the money, as there is little to none left after paying insurance, observer costs and operating fees. If every swimmer were to do swims on their own, there would be no need for the sanctioning bodies and then all the good they provide is gone as well.

First and foremost, bootlegging a swim is probably unsafe. If you freelance a swim, you are out in open seas without a trained observer and boat captain who is experience in escorting swimmers across channels. Your escort boat should be U.S. Coast Guard certified which is extremely important when crossing shipping lanes and dealing with emergency situations etc. A bootlegger may not have an adequate support crew or someone in charge to make decisions regarding safety. A governing organization can make the decisions necessary to ensure the marathon swimmer has a safe experience.

Secondly, the swimmer is probably doing the marathon swim without the necessary insurance provided by the governing organization. If something were to happen during a bootlegged swim, the boat captain, crew, kayaker and support team could all share some legal responsibility should the swimmer or family members be litigious.

Thirdly, governing organizations such as the SBCSA, CCSF and CSA have worked very hard to provide resources for interested marathon swimmers to peruse. These organizations offer a library of advice on nutrition, conditions, courses and historic data. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that anyone who has ever bootlegged a swim has likely visited the governing organization’s website to help them plan. It does not seem right that a person can utilize the organization to prepare for a swim and then go out and do it on their own. I attended a banquet a few years ago and was surprised to see someone present who had bootlegged that organization’s swim earlier in the year. The presenters did not recognize or announce the person as having been successful so I do not know the person’s motivation for being there. It just seemed really odd and out of place to me.

Fourthly, what happens if the person who bootlegs a swim sets a time record or claims they set a time record? What if they involve the media? This puts the governing organization in a very awkward position. What about the person who correctly does a given swim and becomes the 5th person to conquer the body of water according to the governing organization, but then finds out 2 people may have bootlegged the swim? Does this mean he or she was the 5th or 7th person to finish the course?

Finally, if a bootlegger were to have a serious or catastrophic situation, the governing organization would not be legally responsible, but their reputation would take a hit due to all the misinformation disseminated in our very small community of marathon swimmers.

The only legitimate reason a person might provide for not sanctioning a marathon swim through the appropriate organization is that the fees are high and the economy is bad. I completely understand that times are tough and these swims can be expensive when you include boat, gas, registration, membership, crew, food, hotel and travel fees. Please understand however, that you still incur some of these fees even when a swim is bootlegged. If money is truly a problem, I would encourage you to talk to the governing organization and see if there is anything they can do. Perhaps they have a slush fund they could donate for a special situation or maybe they can access an observer who would comp their time. You might also find a Coast Guard certified boat which would be willing to contribute to your swim. On two occasions, I had a boat, crew and fuel donated to swims because I simply went out and asked. You will feel better knowing you are doing the swim properly and safely while supporting the organization who worked so hard to market the swim. My guess is your chance for success will be better as you will have the organization’s full support and resources.

If you still do not feel like paying the fees and supporting the respective organization, I would kindly suggest finding another island to swim from. There are approximately 180,500 islands and 307 million lakes in the world and marathon swimmers have not made swims from even 1% of them. Why is it necessary to bootleg a swim from Catalina for example, when you can drive 60-75 miles south down the freeway and do a swim from one of four Coronado islands? You could also go up to Northern California and swim across Monterey Bay or swim the length of Lake Tahoe. There are no governing bodies for these waters (yet) so you can quietly go about your business and be a true trailblazer.

I will finish with this….the governing organizations for the most part, are not financially strong and many are just barely getting by. We all need a certain number of swims to take place each year if we are to survive. As a marathon ocean swimmer, you should consider how you can help strengthen organizations like the CCSF, SBCSA and CSA, rather than dilute or diminish them by not getting the appropriate sanctions.

The Misuse of Media

I think the media is wonderful for our sport and I am so happy to see the press that many marathon swimmers receive. I believe this is one of the reasons why our sport has become so popular over the last decade. Most of the press is well deserved, but I take issue with people who use the media to promote a swim that they have done (or will be doing), but do not follow the widely accepted rules of marathon swimming. I am talking about people who wear wetsuits/fins or rest on boats/kayaks/land in the middle of a swim or are physically assisted by another. These same people then go to the media and claim an accomplishment, a first or a record when they really did not have one. As far as I am concerned, the swim did not occur if the person did not follow the rules. They should not use the media to claim anything. Once the media gets a hold of an erroneous story, the misinformation is on the Internet or in print forever, which takes away from the previous and future swimmers who legitimately complete the same swim.

Recently, there was a person who claimed to be the first person to do a double across a large lake in the United States. Somehow the press picked up on it and a few articles were written. However, what the articles did not tell you was that this person wore a wetsuit and was helped out of the water at the end of the swim. Instead, the press used terms like “world record attempt”, “record setting”, “historic” and “first”. Guess what….this swim did not take place. Perhaps an “event”, ”exhibition” or a “stunt” occurred, but a marathon or endurance swim did not. Unfortunately, now it is ruined for the first person that does come along and completes the double across this lake.

I just read an article about another person who purported to be the first person from his state to swim a long distance across another lake. This person claimed to be the first from his college to do this and even assigned an overall placement to the accomplishment. This would be fine except for what you don’t read which is, the person wore a wetsuit for the entire event.

There are also plenty examples of people who swam incredible distances down rivers, but then you dig deeper to find out that they actually exited the water several times (not to mention that they also wore artificial aids during their exhibition). You will never convince me otherwise, but the distance of the swim is finished once you put a foot on dry land. The people that claim to have been the first to swim down the Amazon, Danube, Mississippi and Yangzte rivers were really “the first people to swim down these rivers in stages” (provided they were swimming sans wetsuit of course) In other words, that 500 mile river swim was really ten, 50 mile swims for example. Unfortunately, the press is sold the story completely unaware of the rules of our sport so the person gets credit for completing a swim down an entire river. This is wrong, wrong, wrong!

So this is where you can help. As marathon swimmers, we need to coach the people coming into our sport. One of the things I love about marathon/endurance swimming is that it seems everyone has had a person who has mentored them. My mentor was Mike Suttle who swam Catalina in 1986. In turn, I have mentored people who have desired to become marathon swimmers and some of them have now mentored swimmers. We have an obligation to let the "rookies” know what is cool and what isn’t. We need to make sure that they understand the rules of the sport and abide by them.

We also need to speak up. If someone informs you they are going to do a swim with a wetsuit or you hear about a person who intends to bootleg a swim, please encourage them not to. If you understand someone is setting their own rules for a swim, please talk to them. If you see an article on a swim and something is amiss, call the publisher and ask for an investigation. If you become aware of someone who has cheated during a swim, notify the governing organization. If you see an article in a newspaper or magazine which is half true, cry foul and ask the publisher for a retraction or a correction. This is our sport and we all need to band together to protect the sanctity of it. Remember the words of William Safire who said “The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right”.

At the end of 2010, a swimming publication had nominations for the “2010 World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year”. Somehow there was a person nominated who had worn a wetsuit during their event. I guess it would have been ok if the word “swimming” was left out and it was called the “2010 World Open Water Event of the year”. Remember, we have already established that using a wetsuit is not swimming by the true definition…it is much closer to paddle boarding. The point is that marathon swimmers should have spoken up and via blogs letters. Remember, the words of Napoleon who said “Ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent”.

I rest my case. Now, go ahead and fill up my inbox if you desire. Start a conversation on our Facebook page. On the other hand, if you agree, then please help me spread the word. Together, we can purify, redefine and reestablish our sport the way it was meant to be played.


Scott Zornig
President
Santa Barbara Channel Swim Association
santabarbarachannelswim.org