Among masters swimmers, there is occasionally discussions and debates about the etiquette of drafting in the open water.
One such question in the US Masters Swimming forum was direct, "In a draft-legal open water swimming race, is it good or bad etiquette to draft off another person for all, majority or much of a race and then swing around and try to take the win?"
The answers can range from "it's not fair" to "just don't keep hitting the feet of the person in front of you" to "swimmers should take their turn at leading as well as drafting" to "it's a race and drafting is a winning tactic."
While we believe most of world's open water races sanctioned by national governing bodies and FINA allow drafting with a few notable exceptions, it is illegal to impede another swimmer's progress and act in an unsportsmanlike manner. We understand that impeding another swimmer and acting in an unsportsmanlike manner can be applied differently by different referees,
Our position on drafting must recognize the difference between drafting as done by competitive elite and masters swimmers and drafting done by individuals who simply want to participate for fitness and a sense of accomplishment.
Among competitive elite and masters swimmers, drafting is an acquired and respected skill. At the competitive level, there are practiced tactics on drafting and positioning that have been researched and taught by the world's leading open water coaches. Among these swimmers, there is a healthy respect for those who draft and position well and then are able to sprint to victory (e.g., The Ilchenko).
Among professional open water swimmers, tapping on an opponent's feet and trying to "get inside the head" of one's competitors while drafting is also an acquired skill that athletes accept. As was ably demonstrated at the Beijing Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, Maarten van der Weijden and Larisa Ilchenko) are among the best practioners.
While the British (Olympic medalists Keri-Anne Payne, David Davies and Cassandra Patten) are renowned for leading elite races from the front, it is rare that Italian, German or Russian world open water swimming champions take the lead until the late stages of major races. They tend to win at the end by effectively conserving their energy by drafting and smart positioning throughout the race - and then moving into the lead or near the leader with 5-20% of the race left.
While some individuals might think this is unfair, ANY and ALL swimmers have the opportunity to draft in a competitive environment,
But for individuals who simply want to enjoy a race and the camaraderie of open water swimming while swimming from Point A to Point B, we agree that drafting behind or alongside and then "sprinting" ahead "to win" can be viewed as poor etiquette. Certainly, tapping on the feet or constantly bumping into the person ahead of you is in poor taste.
As a countermeasure in cases where you are being bothered by someone behind you, we recommend swimming laterally - even for a few meters or strokes - and the problem often resolves itself. Alternatively - and this has occurred at the professional and competitive levels - you can also simply stop or do some easy backstroke or breaststroke until the offender has passed by you and you have switched positions on your drafting opponent.
Photo of swimmers drafting at the European Open Water Swimming Championships by Giorgio Scala.
Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association