Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cold-Water Contingencies

The 19th annual Big Shoulders 5K and 2.5K races will be held in Lake Michigan on September 12th. This year, the Big Shoulders 5K race will also serve as the US Masters Swimming 5K Open Water Championships.

The site of the Big Shoulders race is very near the proposed 2016 Chicago Olympics course.

What makes the situation noteworthy and thought-provoking is that the current water temperature in the Big Shoulders course is 56°F (13.3°C) - and Lake Michigan can rapidly change temperatures. According to experienced and local marathon swimmer Marcia Cleveland, the water temperature has been documented to shift as much as 20°F (11°C) in one 24-hour period.

Under FINA rules, that are used by the International Olympic Committee, races are not held if the water temperature is under 16°C (60.8°F). The rule is as follows, "The water temperature should be a minimum of 16°C. It should be checked the day of the race, 2 hours before the start, in the middle of the course at a depth of 40 cm. This control should be done in the presence of a Commission made up of the following persons present: a Referee, a member of the Organising Committee and one coach from the teams present designated during the Technical Meeting."

USA Swimming has a similar rule for its open water swimming events that states, "The water temperature should be a minimum of 16°C (60°F)."

However, there is another USA Swimming rule that allows for wetsuits in non-championship events:

"Events/Meets. Wet-Suit Events - Meet directors may request permission for their LSCs to allow the use of wet-suits in any non-championship event. If approved, there shall be separate classification for wet-suit swimmers which shall be clearly stated in the meet information and on the accompanying entry form. Swimming using wet-suits shall be scored separately from swimmers competing without wet-suits."

US Masters Swimming does not have water temperatures guidelines at present. However, the Big Shoulders 5K race committee is very carefully monitoring the water temperature and has made several different contingency plans.

Other than the traditional solo swims across channels and lakes, many open water events nowadays have both wetsuit and non-wetsuit categories. Some races have specific limitations on what type of technical swimsuits are allowed (e.g., the RCP Tiburon Mile, the NYC Swims, the Big Swim and the Byron Bay Ocean Swim Classic). Some races have no specific rules at all concerning technical swimsuits or wetsuits (e.g., thickness, coverage) unlike the triathlon world. And, of course, the interpretation of these current (and evolving) rules is up to the individual referees at each event.

But the number of open water swimmers and the number of locations where open water swims continue to grow, the rules, their interpretations and contingency plans vis-a-vis water temperatures will be discussed, debated and settled for the safety and enjoyment of all.

To be continued.

Photo shows athlete after a cold-water event. Note: she recovered quickly after being professionally attended by the medical personnel at the venue.

Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association