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    Conference keynoter Shelley Taylor-Smith with Bob Placak, founder of the RCP Tiburon Mile swim event in San Francisco.

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 there’s risk.”

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.