Swimming & Diving

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Open Water Swimming Outpacing Other Sports

22 Sep, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The fastest-growing sport taking place in the water right now isn’t bass fishing (although that’s still absolutely enormous). It’s open water swimming.

As an increasing number of athletes have discovered, open water swimming is free and can be done almost anywhere. It’s also an Olympic discipline, though it gets less television love than swimming that takes place in a pool. And because many pools have closed down, it has been thriving.

The good news is that it’s likely to outlast the pandemic because it was on the rise before the virus was even a blip on the radar. According to Swimming.org, research from the Sport England Active Lives survey shows more than 4.1 million people swam in lakes, rivers and seas between November 2017 and 2018. That figure is up significantly: 266,500 people went open water swimming between November 2016 and 2017.

An enormous jump like that is remarkable, but here’s another market indicator. A magazine devoted to outdoor swimming – which had ceased hard copy publication – is back on the newsstands.

According to Endurance Biz, Outdoor Swimmer magazine is now officially back in print. Since May the magazine switched to a digital only version due to a loss of advertising revenue. Now, thanks to support from existing subscribers, swimmers and new subscribers, it is back in print and “able to continue during this difficult year.”

After a sell-out September issue, the magazine will continue to be printed and delivered to all Supporters, Patrons and Super Patrons of its subscribers, known as the Outdoor Swimmer Family. The magazine’s new subscriber model offers reader benefits including print, digital, editor calls and a fabric ‘vintage style’ swimming badge.

As more former pool swimmers enter the open water scene, articles are popping up to help them along. (Rule number one: don’t go alone). And with the uptick, it’s easy to imagine that triathlons and other outdoor multi-sport events could offer a swim-only event.

For those with big aspirations, the Olympics has a 10K open water swim, also known as the Marathon Swim. Open water swimming has been a podium sport since 2008 and in the FINA World Aquatics Championships since 1991. And it has a strong following of enthusiasts who travel around to compete.

(Note: Open water swimming is not to be confused with winter swimming, which means swimming outdoors, usually in open water – though sometimes in unheated pools. In some places, it is synonymous with ice swimming. This requires either breaking the ice or entering where a spring prevents the formation of ice. It may also be simulated by a pool of water at 0 °C (32 °F), the temperature at which water freezes).

(All together now: OMG).

But back to the topic at hand. A number of organizations also support the outdoor swimming community and event owners interested in offering open water swims would likely do well to reach out to them. The website, Marathon Swimmers, publishes information on events and goings-on among organizations like New York Open Water, Knoxville Open Water Swimmers and the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimmers’ Association in Vermont (tag line: “No Lanes, No Lines, No Limits”).

US Masters Swimming, citing the rise in outdoor swimming, noted that it was a healthful alternative with pools closed. Sunlight rapidly inactivates the virus and being outdoors where there’s plenty of airflow reduces the chances of transmitting the virus between people. For the time being, open water—as long as there is access to a safe site and a partner to swim with in a socially distanced manner—can be a great option.

Something else interesting: While chlorine is a great disinfectant for pool swimmers, open water athletes also benefit from being outside, where there is less opportunity for the germ to pass between individuals, provided they stay far enough apart from one another once they’re out of the water.

In Iowa, the Gazette noted the uptick of interest among college and club swimmers, who are using the local lakes as long as weather conditions will allow.

“It has been an exercise in perspective and creativity for sure,” said Megan Oesting, head coach for the Eastern Iowa Swimming Federation club team. “We think we need certain things to grow in our sport but this time has allowed me to think about what really makes a great swimmer and go for the level up in the areas that don’t necessarily require water to learn.”

Open water swims also present a bucket-list challenge for many, who, with more time on their hands, are exploring the potential. Need proof? Swimming World Magazine notes that 16-year-old Vera Rivard just swam the English Channel in 14 hours, 10 minutes, becoming the youngest to complete the crossing in years. According to Channel Swimming Association website, Vera Rivard is the 1676th person to make the crossing since 1875 and second American to finish the swim in 2020. (Swimmers must be 16 to attempt the swim). Rivard’s first open water event was the one-mile swim at Kingdom Swim on Lake Memphremagog in 2014, when she was 10.

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