In a first for the open water swimming community, race directors, swimmers and other aquatics experts came together for the inaugural Open Water Swimming Safety Conference.
“It was probably long overdue for the open water swimming
world,” said Jim Wheeler, a Richmond, Calif.-based aquatic
safety expert and owner of Total Aquatic Management. “People
came from all over with all different viewpoints and they were all
interested in protecting the athletes. It was eye opening and
showed that everyone agrees on a lot of commonalities where
Held March 18-20 at San Francisco’s Airport Marriott
Water-front hotel, the event was hosted by U.S. Masters Swimming
and Pacific Masters Swimming.
The goal: To discuss best practices, planning protocols and
guidelines for improving event safety and athlete protection, and
to address “the increasing concern that we as a sport are not
doing enough to maintain adequate safety levels,” said Steve
Munatones, a former open water swimming champion, now
editor-in-chief of The Daily News of Open Water Swimming
and a member of FINA’s Technical Open Water Swimming
Committee. He helped organize the event.
Open water swimming is unique in that it is perhaps the only sport
where athletes can literally disappear from the field of play if
they run into trouble. Inherent risks include currents, pollution,
hypothermia, sharks and jellyfish.
But the sport also has seen tremendous growth in the past decade or
so, Munatones said. He calculates there are now close to 1,000
races annually. With that growth, the number of inexperienced
swimmers participating also has grown. That may be one reason there
was a significant increase in the number of athlete deaths last
year — 16, according to Munatones — the most notable of
which was world-class swimmer Fran Crippen, who died during a FINA
race in the United Arab Emirates.
“As open water swimming has grown in popularity and even
become an Olympic sport, safety has not been adequately
prioritized,” said Chris Brewster, president of the U.S.
Lifesaving Association. “This conference was prompted by the
death of a world-class competitor in a FINA-sanctioned event. If
safety at that level is inadequate [there were fewer than 80
competitors in the race], you can imagine that corners are being
cut in less-prominent events. USA Swimming, for example, recommends
the use of Boy Scouts, but doesn’t recommend lifeguards to
safeguard open water swims." He said we need to accept the fact
that without proper safeguards, the water can be deadly, so we must
ensure safeguards are in place.
Event speakers included Brewster, Munatones, based in Huntington
Beach, Calif., and Wheeler; keynoter Shelley Taylor-Smith, an
Australian seven-time World Marathon swimming champion and member
of FINA’s Technical Open Water Swimming Committee; Bruce
Wigo, CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Fort
Lauderdale, Fla.; Maddy Crippen of the Fran Crippen Elevation
Foundation; and several race directors.
Organizers plan to continue the conference as an annual event. More
information and video from the 2011 event is available at dailynewsofopenwaterswimming.com.