“What’s Wrong with Marathon Swimming” is the title of a recent op-ed/essay/rant by Scott Zornig, president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. Zornig’s piece, distributed through the SBCSA mailing list and Facebook page, has sparked some interesting discussion – but frankly, I haven’t heard many opposing voices. Shows who my friends are, I s’pose.
Three issues, basically, moved Scott to wield his poison pen:
- Wetsuits. Specifically, the use of them during marathon swims.
- Bootlegging – i.e., attempting a marathon swim without paying dues to the relevant governing body to have it officially observed and ratified.
- The misuse of the media. In particular, people who use the media to promote and glorify marathon “swims” in which traditionally accepted Channel Rules are not followed (e.g., wetsuits). Especially when such people claim to be the “first” to accomplish a swim, or to have set a record. Or really, any claim to status, of any sort.
Scott isn’t the first person to have these thoughts – and it’s probably true that his views “overwhelmingly reflect the beliefs of most marathon swimmers.” The reason Scott’s letter struck a nerve, I think, is that he said it so publicly – as president of a channel swimming federation – and in such uncompromising terms. The community of open-water swimmers is quite small, the marathon swimming sub-community even smaller.
People are reluctant to ruffle feathers and alienate friends. I ran into this dynamic myself when I took on Terry Laughlin last spring about stroke rate & length in open water. So it took a certain quantity of cojones for Scott to write what he did. And I, for one, applaud him for it.
I have just a few things to add…
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.
So what’s the problem with wetsuits? Quite simply, all three of the above items become meaningless. They insulate swimmers from the elements, thus reducing the physical challenge. And they make failure less likely, thus reducing the mental challenge.
Personally, I’m not a fan of wetsuits even for short swims. I think most people don’t need them – or don’t realize they don’t need them – or could do without them with just a little practice. Wetsuits should be viewed as training wheels - a crutch. Instead, it often seems like they’re the default. Specifically, when race directors don’t distinguish between wetsuits and “skins” in the results. An unfortunate dynamic arises in this case: Swimmers are incentivized to wear wetsuits even when they don’t need them – just to keep up with the competition.
Arms races have no place in swimming, even at short distances. Wear wetsuits if you want, but– Separate divisions, Separate awards.
However, I recognize that wetsuits make open-water swimming accessible to people who might not otherwise try it – and that’s a good thing. I also understand that many open-water races are organized by triathletes, and I respect their right to write the rules according to the norms of their sport.
Marathon swimming is different, though. Purity is the point. So I agree with Scott Z.’s admonition that if you must wear a wetsuit, please don’t call it a marathon swim.