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What's Wrong With Marathon Swimming? Part II

An editorial by Scott Zornig, President of the SBCSA

September 12, 2011

This past week, I released a newsletter titled What's Wrong with Marathon Swimming. I am pleased to report that I have received only 7 negative responses, 1 neutral comment and hundreds of emails, posts and blogs from marathon swimmers worldwide who have said things like:

I had a feeling the responses would be positive, but I had no idea it would be so overwhelming lopsided. I could be wrong, but it appears that 2 of the 7 negative responses came from people who had never done a marathon distance swim, a 3rd was from the owner of a company which sells performance wetsuits, a 4th was from a open water race director who allows wetsuits in his event, and a 5th was from a disabled person who had used a wetsuit in a marathon distance swim.

It is clear that marathon swimmers from around the world, want the well established and defined rules of marathon swimming followed and respected. They want all newcomers to pay their dues and put in the time necessary to play our sport the way it was intended to be played....the same way it was played for nearly 100 years (1875 until the early 1970's). As one swimmer responded "I have spent years working to acclimatize for a swim in both very warm and very cold climates. I do not take short cuts!" Another swimmer wrote "I used to get easily hypothermic years ago, but with training, I came to love cold water. I am glad I put in the effort and stayed true to our sport."

I had a person from Ireland comment, "our water is much colder than yours so we sometimes need wetsuits. I say, no you don't! Lynne Cox proved to the world that the human body can even withstand temperatures in the mid 30's with the proper amount of training. Others have now followed her lead and have pushed their limits. Yours truly tried 36 degree water without a wetsuit and found that it is doable. So the correct statement from the Irishman should have been, "our water is much colder than yours and I do not want to take the time to train for acclimation. Therefore, I chose to wear a wetsuit."

Evan Morrison from Freshwater Swimmer explained it much better than I did in my newsletter when he said:

Marathon swimming isn't just about the distance. After all, people run and ride long distances, too. It’s the other stuff that makes marathon swimming unique and special in the world of endurance sports.

The tradition. The knowledge that when we enter the water to begin a long swim, we're using the same simple technology (textile suit, cap, goggles) as those who came before us, as far back as the 19th century. What other sports can boast as level a playing field over time?

The elements. Marathon swimmers face down large bodies of water, as they are on a given day. The water may be cold, choppy, perhaps even full of scary marine life. The swimmer is vulnerable, “naked” in the figurative (but almost literal) sense. But she faces down her fears and vulnerabilities, and jumps in anyway. Marathon swimmers overcome the elements through physical acclimation and mental fortitude – not technology.

The possibility of failure. One of the foremost mental challenges of a marathon swim is the knowledge that you might not finish. You might get hypothermic, no matter how well acclimated you are. Rough seas or adverse currents might make it impossible to continue. Or perhaps your nutrition doesn't work out and you run out of energy. Failure is always possible, no matter who you are.

These are fundamental elements of marathon swimming. Remove any one of them and you have a different sport".

Thank you, Evan!

It is common knowledge that Captain Mathew Webb was the first person to "swim" across the English channel and he is regarded as the worlds first modern day marathon swimmer. What many people don't know is that a person by the name of Paul Boyton actually crossed the channel in 1875, a few months before Captain Webb's successful swim. Unfortunately, Paul Boyton wore a rubber suit that provided flotation. His costume eerily resembled today's wetsuits. He was also guilty of resting on the side of his support boat during his swim. As a result, his legacy is that of a showman, adventurer and frogman who was know for his water stunts. He is not credited as the first person to swim across the English channel and rightly so.

I also had people respond with personal stories and examples of others who ignored the widely accepted rules of marathon swimming including one from Hall of Fame marathon swimmer, David Yudovin. David mentioned that in 2010, he went to do a swim in the Madeira Islands which are located off the coast of Morocco. It was necessary for David to obtain permits from the maritime port authority. He met with the port captain who initially responded with "how can I issue you permission when two years ago, three young men wearing wet suits and fins barely made the same swim? Furthermore, they are half your age!" After extensive meetings and a great deal of time and energy, David finally convinced the port authority and was granted permission to do the swim. David conquered the channel and completed it considerably faster that the three exhibitionists. As per the strict rules of marathon swimming, David finished on the mainland while the trio landed on an off shore rock. After much effort, the local press and general community finally came around and recognized David as the first and only legitimate swimmer to swim the Madeira Channel.

It should not be so difficult folks, but unfortunately in marathon swimming, a few decide to make up, amend and follow their own rules and still call it a marathon or endurance swim. I wonder how these same people would feel if someone wanted to ride in the Tour de France with a motorcycle instead of a bicycle or desired to run in the Boston Marathon using a skateboard instead of running shoes? These examples may sound ridiculous to you, but this is equivalent to someone ignoring or changing the rules of marathon swimming. As Evan said, "It becomes a different sport" which is what the naysayers seem to have a hard time grasping.

Please understand that even though my preference is for people to closely follow the rules of marathon swimming, I would never say that a person cannot wear a wetsuit to navigate a body of water nor make their own rules for their endeavor. It is a free world...do as you please. My single, simple request is please do not label it a "marathon or endurance swim" because it falls into a completely different category which the word "swim" has no part of. Honor and respect the sport of marathon swimming by doing it the right way or call your endeavor something else. Please just leave the name "marathon or endurance swimming" out of it.

Since people will continue to do things their own way, we must all speak up...we must be loud and our voices must be heard. We cannot let up until our sport is purified and distanced from the sports which cause confusion. Please write our magazine editors, post on blogs, send emails, form policing committees. Do not let the accomplishments of true marathon swimmers be diminished by the "water stunts" of others. Stand up and be heard! Remember, we are marathon swimmers....we are use to a long fight!

Perhaps we can globally agree to adopt the name “Water Adventure” and “Water Exhibition” and classify all non-complying events into this category. This way, people still can still receive some credit for their endeavors, yet it stops them from raining on the parade of true marathon swimming accomplishments.

Thank you for allowing me to bend your ear one last time. Now, please go spread the word.


Scott Zornig
President
Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association
santabarbarachannelswim.org