The Future of Marathon Swimming – New Technology on the Horizon

Posted by Scott Zornig, 1 December 2012

In the past, it was relatively easy to distinguish allowable technology used in a marathon swim. If a swimmer followed CSA and CCSF rules, the swim counted. If the swimmer used technology outside these rules such as shark cages, wetsuits and fins, the swim would not be recognized by the marathon swim organization or the event was given an asterisk. As our sport increases in popularity and swimmers continue to push the limits, new technology is being developed and used that at minimum, cloud the water while some completely goes against the spirit of our sport.

The two best examples of newer technology are the electronic shark deterrent systems (ESDS) and anti-stinger suits. Although the ESDS have been out for over 10 years, as the price has dropped more marathon swimmers are starting to use them. Stinger suits are much newer with several manufacturers in a race to develop the best option. There have been some recent marathon swims where stinger suits were used in waters known for lethal Jelly Fish.

Even more recently, Diana Nyad used two products on her attempted swim from Cuba to Florida. The first product dubbed a “Streamer,” is a piece of cloth or illuminated material that runs parallel and next to an escort boat to benefit the swimmer. The cloth is used during daytime hours while the illuminated material is used during the night for the swimmer to follow and expend less energy. The second item, named “Solar Shower,” is a large plastic bladder that is filled with water and lies on the deck. The sea water heats up from the sun which is then poured on the swimmer for some temporary relief.

There are 10 marathon sanctioning organizations in the United States and approximately 20 in other countries around the world. If my research is correct, only one organization has ruled against the use of the electronic shark deterrent system. A few more have ruled against the use of stinger suits. I don’t know if any organization has rendered a decision on the solar shower or streamers. Most marathon swimming organizations have no rules addressing these four devices. My experience is that marathon swimming organizations tend to “leave it alone” if it does not pertain to their waters or render a decision only when pressed.

It is going to get interesting as new technology is being developed and even more talked about. This new technology will make a marathon swimmer faster, warmer, safer and more confident. Here are some questions we should all be asking…which products should be acceptable and which will fall into the “assisted swim” category? Will marathon swim organizations accept this technology, refute it, or look the other way? Which devices go against the tradition of our sport? Since we do not have one governing body with universal rules, organizations may see this equipment surface in their geography. Most organizations do not have policies in place for these new products. I usually have a strong opinion, but quite honestly, I don’t know how I feel about some of this technology. Let’s face it, new technology has affected every sport there is….even in marathon swimming where we have taken advantage of things like GPS for example. Where do we draw the line since marathon swimming is supposed to be about man/woman against nature and the elements? There are some who seem to have a mentality of “let me see what I can find that will make my swim a little easier.”

Just for comparison, look at what is going on in mountain climbing … a person with a lot of money can pay to fly in a helicopter to Everest base camp where the climber is met by Sherpas who carry the gear, set up the tent, prepare the food and provide Oxygen as the air gets thin (I am quite sure I could not make it to the top of Everest even with 20 Sherpas carrying me the entire way). I know it still takes a Herculean effort to summit even with the Sherpas assistance, but doesn’t something seem amiss?

So without further ado, here is a quick description of some new marathon swimming products which are being discussed, designed, developed and/or tested:

Think about it…there may be a day when a marathon swimmer can apply an all-encompassing grease type substance that 1) provides lubrication 2) protects from the sun 3) retains body heat 4) warms up the body (similar to tiger balm) 5) blocks jelly fish stings and 6) deters sharks. The technology almost exists and we would likely have it today if there were as many marathon swimmers as runners for example. Since there is such a low demand, the product has not been developed as one. Of course, if a swimmer wanted additional protection, this all-purpose grease could be supplemented with warmed water, sound and magnets to keep the swimmers extra safe.

Our sport began with a swimsuit, goggles, ear plugs, cap, map, row boat, food and brandy. This is the absolute minimum a person requires to safely do a channel swim. Clearly this new technology will be a game changer. A swimmer can feel warm, safe and confident during their channel crossing swim if this new technology is accepted.

Where do you stand on this? Is this new technology good for our sport or are we getting too far away from the way marathon swimming was intended to be played? I obviously have opinions on some of this technology, but I am undecided on the rest. Do we evolve like other sports and allow new technology? How much do we allow? What specifically do we allow? What I do believe is that this demonstrates the need for a governing marathon swim organization which can make the difficult decisions as new technology is introduced. Marathon swimming needs its own FINA. Otherwise, our sport will become more splintered than it already is.

So here’s the deal. I am thinking of swimming from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic next year which is 70.9 statute miles … a new distance record if I make it (I’m not really going to do this. I am so out of shape that I could not even swim across a small Koi pond right now). During this swim, I am going to use the standard aids of goggles, suit, ear plugs and Vaseline. However, I am also going to add a gel like repellant made of dead sharks, soap, sunscreen and jelly protectant. I also am going to attach an electronic shark deterrent system to each of the two kayaks I will be swimming between. I am going to wear a jelly suit over the gel for a little extra protection. I will be following a streamer to keep me on course and will use a shower which will rain warm or cold water over me as needed. Finally, I am going to attach under water, magnetic speakers and play some loud ACDC. Assuming I make it across this channel, does my swim count? What do you think? If you have strong feelings about new or existing technology, please allow yourself to be heard. This is your sport!

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