In the sports world, triathlons and open water swimming can be considered like cousins – different, but with a strikingly similar DNA. Both sports are experiencing unprecedented growth and popularity around the world.
When we analyze the growth and demographics of the two sports, the similarities abound.
According to USA Triathlon (USAT), there was a sizeable shift in triathlon's participation base from the 30-34 age group to the 35-39 age group during the late 1990’s.
Since that time, the greatest growth has occurred in the 35-39 and 40-44 age groups. USAT believes triathlon's growth will continue because those age groups are looking for new outlets of participation and fitness. Similarly in the open water world, the largest age groups across swims in the 81 countries we surveyed range between the ages of 30-49 with the bulk in the 35-44 year age groups
Like triathlons, based on the number of newcomers, we believe that the vast majority of adult open water swimmers are looking for new athletic outlets just like their triathlon counterparts.
USA Triathlon confirmed their sport’s growth has been consistent in all age categories over the past decade - which is also absolutely true in open water. Like USAT , we believe the size of both sports – even in times of a global recession – will continue to increase as more events are being established throughout every region in the world, including areas outside the major metropolitan areas.
Reasons for Growth
USAT’s data shows that since 2000, the female membership has grown from 27% of its total to over 38% at the end of 2008.
USAT's believes this growth is based on society’s acceptance of active women, women feeling more comfortable living an active lifestyle, the growth of women’s-only events like the Danskin and Trek Triathlon Series, and more races that focus on charity involvement and fundraising. While there are only a few women-only open water swims around the world (e.g., Sweden's Vansbrosimningen and in Iran), many open water swims have women-only heats and, although our data is not as detailed as USAT, it is obvious that the fastest growing demographic group in open water swimming is women over the age of 40.
In fact, if we look at the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation data from the 2009 English Channel season, there were 62 successful crossings (including one two-way crossing) with 22 of those crossings made by women (or 35% of the total which closely mirrors the overall percentage of women who participate in all forms of open water swimming). But, a number (to be confirmed) of these women are on the north side of 40.
While competitive pool swimming in the U.S. has consistently and largely mirrored the general population growth in the U.S. for the last few decades, with a few exceptions, triathlons and open water swimming are experiencing explosive growth. The USAT data shows that triathlon participation in the U.S. is at an all-time high, following unprecedented growth over the past ten years. From membership numbers between 15,000 and 19,060 from 1993 to 1999, USAT membership surpassed 115,000 in 2009.
Similarly, the antidotal evidence in open water shows similar growth with the average number of participants in open water swims increasing from 156 in 1999 to over 280 in 2009. Several open water swims are representative of this growth:
For example, the Midmar Mile in South Africa has experienced this consistent growth under the leadership of race director Wayne Riddin:
1974 - 153 swimmers
1975 - 220 swimmers
1976 - 634 swimmers
1977 - 1,021 swimmers
1978 - 1,426 swimmers
1979 - 1,892 swimmers
1980 - 2,500 swimmers
1981 - 3,000 swimmers
1982 - 3,000 swimmers
1983 - unknown
1984 - 2,555 swimmers
1985 - 2,454 swimmers
1986 - 3,200 swimmers
1987 - 3,500 swimmers
1988 - 3,916 swimmers
1989 - 3,700 swimmers
1990 - 4,000 swimmers
1991 - 4,890 swimmers
1992 - 4,400 swimmers
1993 - 4,724 swimmers
1994 - 5,027 swimmers
1995 - 6,140 swimmers
1996 - 6,925 swimmers
1997 - 7,774 swimmers
1998 - 9,600 swimmers
1999 - 10,045 swimmers
2000 - 10,045 swimmers
2001 - 12,214 swimmers
2002 - 13,218 swimmers
2003 - 16,050 swimmers
2004 - 17,332 swimmers
2005 - 17,087 swimmers
2006 - 16,696 swimmers
2007 - 16,853 swimmers
2008 - 19,013 swimmers
2009 - 17,575 swimmers
Where swims are limited in size due to local ordinances, the maximum number of participants is now quickly reached (in the matter of minutes) in numerous swims including the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in New York, the Chesapeake Bay Swim in Maryland.
Additionally, there are now several events around the world such as the Rottnest Channel Swim in Western Australia which are so popular that a lottery system is now in place to determine what swimmers are the fortunate to get in the swim.
And, of course, series such as the Sovereign New Zealand Ocean Swim Series, the Great Swim Series in Britain and the Axxess DSL Ocean Racing Series in South Africa are growing by leaps and bounds and did not exist in the early 21st century.
Wherever only a few dozen swimmers previously participated in long-distance swims in Lake Windermere, the definition of open water swimming has expanded, enabling fields for the Great North Swim to exceed 6,000 participants in only its second year.
Differences in Triathlon vs. Open Water
There are some differences, however. In 2006, USAT required mandatory youth memberships which helped its membership double from 40,299 in 2002 to 84,787 in 2006, but outside of a few passionate coaches (Siga Rose), organizations (Ohio Swimming), events (OceanKids of New Zealand) and federations (British Swimming), open water swimming remains primarily the sport of adults, which indicates that the potential for continued growth in open water swimming remains high and largely untapped among the younger demographic groups.
But, like triathlons which saw 280,000 individuals purchase a one-day membership to compete in USAT sanctioned events in 2007 (growing from 100,000 in 2000), open water swimming enjoys a vast number of enthusiasts who only do one event per year. This may be due to the fact that, relative to other swims, there are so few open water swims available. But, it is also a possible indication that as the number of events increases, these one-event-per-year swimmers will start to participate in more events.
Reasons for Growth
USAT believes that the growth of triathlon popularity is partly due to its appearance in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. On the Olympic stage for the first time, the publicity of the sport was unprecedented. The media interest sustained momentum through the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Magazines, newspapers and online media continued to cover triathletes, helping position the pros as incredible Supermen and Superwomen and making it cool for the average participant to be seen as a triathlete – at any level. Training for a triathlon has become a badge of courage and competing in an Ironman – no matter how fast or slow – elicits the respect and awe of the triathlete’s family, friends and co-workers.
Lure of Olympic Gold
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, over 70 countries broadcast the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim live. While television coverage of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim paled in comparison to the Olympic triathlon in the U.S., a total of over 46,000 people in the U.S. logged on live online, late at night, to watch NBC Olympics’s live online coverage of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim.
USAT believe the following factors all play a part in triathlon’s continued popularity:
• Society’s interest in fitness and living a healthy lifestyle
• The growth of the number of total races across the country, making races easier to get to
• The growth in the number of the more accessible shorter sprint races, which made the sport more accessible to those with fewer hours to train each week
• Media attention on the sport
• Growth in the 30-49 age groups who are looking for varied outlets for fitness
• Peer pressure from friends who have tried the sport
• The ego reward of saying you are a triathlete
• Increase in clubs, which create a community concept for men and especially women who enjoy the group training and support atmosphere
• Increase in resources (websites, books, magazines) that provide assistance/education in getting started
• Growth in multisport shops and triathlon specific training and racing gear
• Marketing and communications efforts of USA Triathlon
• Growth in the number of USAT certified coaches who are able to provide training plans and individual attention for athletes who need guidance and motivation
We also have stated similar reasons for the growth in open water swimming in a previous article that can be seen here, but the allure of Olympic gold on the athletes and sporting public is both tangibly large and intangibly motivating and inspiring.
Growth of Events
Event-wise, the number of USAT-sanctioned races, camps and clinics have climbed from 1,541 in 2004 to 2,804 in 2008 (a 181% growth) – which also mirrors the growth of open water swims in the U.S. from 220 in 1999 to over 700 in 2009 (a 320% growth). USAT also points out that multi-sport events such as duathlons (run-bike-run), Aquabikes (bike-swim-bike) and Aquathlons (run-swim-run) have also seen excellent growth. Again, this is similar to the growth in stage swims, solo charity swims, professional prizes of all sorts from the RCP Tiburon Mile to the Flowers Sea Swim and expedition swims in the open water world which are largely performed outside the sanction of established governing bodies.
Short vs. Long
USAT triathlon also points out that biggest growth continues to be at the shorter sprint distances, which have surged from 818 in 2004 to 1,338 in 2008, but growth at other distances (including Olympic, Half Ironman and Ironman) has also been consistent during that time. Similarly, most of the open water events are short-distance (85% are under 5K in distance in the U.S.), but the 5K-10K Olympic-distance events (4% of the total) and marathon-distance events (11% of the total) have also carved out their own niches and ardent practitioners.
USAT also estimates there are approximately 500 triathlon events that are not sanctioned by USAT in the U.S. (e.g., conducted by universities and YMCA’s). Similarly, but to a much larger extent, the open water world offers numerous events that are hosted by a various of organizations outside of the traditional national governing bodies. It is interesting to note that USAT and other triathlon organizations are being very successful in sanctioning open water events that have traditionally been sanctioned by swimming organizations.
What is also interesting is the data from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) that has included triathlons in its national participation studies since 2006. The SGMA data shows that a remarkable 921,000 Americans participated in at least one triathlon in 2006, while that number jumped to more than 1.1 million in 2007. Even more remarkably, the growth of core participants (i.e., those athletes who compete in more than two events per year) increased from 550,000 in 2006 to 746,000 in 2007 – a growth rate of 35.6%. And, by definition, 100% of those triathletes do open water, albeit many of the triathletes view open water swimming as something to get over with as quickly and painlessly as possible before doing the "real" (and bulk) of their endurance activity.
Admittedly, triathlons enjoy several key advantages over open water swimming on a variety of levels.
1. Many young people view triathlon as a real sport – not a fringe sport as it was early on. However, open water swimming, in our opinion, is still 10-20 years behind triathlon’s growth and, as such, we believe open water swimming is still seen by many – including most competitive pool swimmers – as a fringe sport.
2. NBC Universal, Versus and many smaller sports networks regularly televise triathlon events while open water swimming’s televised events are few and far between. [Note: the obvious exceptions are the Great Swim Series televised in Britain, the World Swimming Championships televised by Rai TV in Europe and a few professional swims sanctioned by FINA.
3. USAT and other national triathlon federations have very successfully marketed the sport to its younger participants while the focused, nationwide open water swimming efforts by national swimming federations is more limited.
4. USAT spent money on conducting a study on The Mind of the Triathlete that revealed new data on the demographics and spending habits of multisport athletes in the U.S. However, research studies on the Mind of the Open Water Swimmer has largely been the solitary work of passionate individuals such as Dr. Julie Bradshaw, Jen Schumacher and Sakura Hingley. So whereas USAT was able to get more than 15,000 triathletes to give 20 minutes of their time describing their experiences, lifestyle, habits and backgrounds, open water swimming’s in-depth research is still in its infancy.
5. Triathlon’s growth is more institutionalized among national federations and supported by a vast greater amount of capital and human resources.
Open Water Swimming Advantages
Open water swimming’s obvious strength is in the grass-roots level where its growth is percolating and simmering, quietly and without the vast sums of capital and, by and large, without the corporate support or organizational infrastructure that the sport of triathlon currently enjoys.
Open water swimming will also be able to tap into the increase in crossover athletes or those from the triathlon and pool swimming world who support and participate in open water swimming. We believe that open water swimming is just beginning to tap into the crossover pool swimmer, on the age-group, masters and elite levels.
Open water swimming has just begun to tap into its potential for creating destination events held in gorgeous waters in beautiful locations, both tropical and temperate.
When we consider that the International Paralympic Committee will hold its third world open water swimming championships in 2010, when the Special Olympics will have its first 1.5K world open water swimming championship at its 2011 World Games in Athens, when wetsuit-acceptable events like the Great Swim Series capture the attention of over 6,000 swimmers in its second year, when the largest television broadcaster in Latin America, Globo TV, and other broadcasters around the world are scheduled to broadcast even more open water races, when wild swimming is taking off, an when masters swimming is wholeheartedly supporting the open water swimming movement, we know the sport is on its way to healthy success.
In summary, the outlook for both triathlons and open water swimming remains bright – extraordinarily bright.
Photos of Sara McLarty who has represented the USA in both triathlon and open water swimming world championship events.
Copyright © 2009 by Open Water Source