Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “The only constant in life is change.”
When change happens in the open water swimming community, few veterans are surprised. Records are constantly being set. New swims are constantly being pioneered. Swims are being constantly achieved that are ever more cold, ever more rough, ever longer, ever more unthinkable, and ever more remote
However, when change does happen in the open water, I often find myself surprised that change did not happen sooner.
One example is the increasing number of disabled swimmers who are achieving an increasing number of swims around the world – from swimming in the ice to crossing channels.
But there are many, many other open water swimmers who simply enjoy heading to the shorelines and going for a dip, short or long.
I remember watching Olympic medalist Thomas Lurz and other volunteers helping disabled swimmers enjoy the waters off Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in the Praia Para Todos program offered by the Institute Novo Ser. Also, I watched with admiration the efforts of Bruckner Chase and his wife Michelle Evans-Chase who created the Ocean Swimming & Prone Paddleboarding program for Athletes with Spinal Cord Injuries in New Jersey. These volunteers make sure great differences in the lives of people who deal with different disabilities, but who love the open water.
The International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, under the leadership of its executive committee with Ned Denison, Beth Yudovin, Richard Broer, Madhu Nagaraja, and Nora Toledano Cadena, are ahead of the curve. They actively seek to identify and nominate paraswimming representatives from different demographics who have been overlooked in previous decades. A recent inductee was British disabled swimmer Ros Hardiman.
However, the IMSHOF has long recognized the achievements of disabled swimmers such Dr. Caroline Block, Robert Cossette, Dr. James Counsilman, Buck Dawson, Gertrude Ederle, Annette Kellerman, David Parcells, James Pittar, Taranath Narayan Shenoy, Ernst Vierkoetter, and Charles Zibleman who were inducted as Honor Swimmers.
These are all great people, stories, and achievements.
But George Carvalho, a Dolphin Club member, recently raised an unexpected point in his home waters of San Francisco Bay.
The famed Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club of San Francisco was established in 1877 and has long supported and promoted open water swimming for many generations. However, the Club does not allow its members to use swim aids such as swim fins or wetsuits on its organized swims in San Francisco Bay. This same policy either is or was the position of many open water swimming events, clubs, and governing bodies around the world, the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club Swim Rules are clear: “No swim aids, including wetsuits, fins, paddles, or other swim aids, are allowed on scheduled Dolphin Club swim.”
Rules are rules.
But like many issues in the open water swimming community, the nuances and perspectives are different and important to swimmers who have different opinions. For example, drafting off an escort boat is allowed under Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation rules in the English Channel, but drafting off an escort boat is not allowed under Catalina Channel & Swimming Federation rules across the Catalina Channel. Not starting on land and not clearing the water at the finish are permitted in the North Channel crossings, but standing on land and walking in the water and finishing beyond the high tide mark are required in other channel crossings.
Steven Munatones says, “So many choices and differences exist in the open water swimming community – and that is the beauty of the sport. Plus, the sport has embraced change over the generations. Fin swims and fin-swimming divisions were rare in races in the previous century; now, they exist all over the world. The World Professional Marathon Swimming Association would have never allowed wetsuits to be used in races; now World Aquatics requires the use of wetsuits when the water is under 18°C and allows its use when the water is under 20°C (68°F). Swimmers like Penny Dean, John Kinsella, Kevin Murphy, Sally Minty-Gravett MBE could have never imagined using GPS when they first started marathon swimming. Now that technology is a given. Same with shark deterrents from Shark Shields to SharkBanz.”
Carvalho points out and raises the point that the result of the Dolphin Club rule is that disabled members who want to use swim aids are excluded from participating in the club’s swims. Carvalho’s online Change.org petition is a public attempt to encourage the Dolphin Club’s board of governors to change its current policy. His perspectives are explained in detail here.
Rules are rules.
But why are swim aids necessary for some paraswimmers? The reason can range from avoiding hypothermia which is an increased risk for amputees to being tethered to another swimmer for a deaf person or using modified fins for someone with one or more residual limbs. The aids are meant to enable them to participate in open water swims safely. Their purpose is not to enable them to gain an unfair advantage over their able-bodied competitors.
But like other issues in the sport, there are options. Differences are available and disabled swimmers can make their own choices.
The obvious option in San Francisco Bay swims are the events hosted by the South End Rowing Club (SERC) that was established in 1873 and shares the same facilities and waters in Aquatic Park. SERC does not have such a policy. As a result, their members are welcome to use swim aids on every club swim.
Dolphin Club members argue that there is no issue and that the Dolphin Club already accommodates disabled swimmers and has done so for years. As Ben Chun states, “This petition falsely accuses the Dolphin Club of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, club policy adopted in 2003 and published in the club rulebook states that any member with a disability may use swim aids or prosthetic devices. This policy establishes a procedure by which reasonable accommodation is provided, as both the law and common decency require. The goal of inclusion is one that we all share, but a petition to solve a problem that doesn’t exist does nothing to further that goal.“
But the voice and perspective of Suzie Dods, a Dolphin Club member since 1991 who served as its Swim Commissioner for 3 years between 2001 and 2003, rings loud and true. She explains, “I was a dual member from 2005 to 2021. Your posts are not helpful, are misleading, and ill informed. The Dolphin Club swims are events, but they are also races. The tradition of swimming skins ,without aids is a tradition and a highly respected one. It is the bastion of open water swimming, especially marathon swims. As Ben says there is easily accessible information on the rules in regards to those desiring ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accommodation. In addition, if one wishes to race or swim in events wearing fins, wetsuits, diving helmets, or tiaras, there is a neighboring club with pretty much the same facilities and a similar price point, but a different set of rules, right next door.
Some traditions are meant to be adapted or foregone. Some are meant to remain. As a marathon swimmer, as a swim coach, as a swimming teacher, as a Triple Crown swimmer, as a tour operator for swimming vacations, I’m all for inclusion. However do not go headlong into a china shop without first knowing and respecting the boundaries and the history of this storied club and its culture.
There has always been accommodation for those that need it. Both Cappy Benton and Mr. Munatones are fomenting discord and, dare I say it ‘fake news’ about an exclusion of disabled that does not exist.”
So there are clear choices. There are options. There are differences. And there are exceptions. Change may occur, or according to Dolphin Club members may not even be necessary.
For more information, visit the petition Allow Disabled Swimmers at the Dolphin Club to Use Swim Aids and the Dolphin Club Swim Rules here.
As a historical footnote, I recall that swimmers like Keri-Anne Payne, Larisa Ilchenko, and other competitors complained to the Olympic officials who initially refused to allow Natalie du Toit to use her prosthetic leg to walk several hundreds of meters from the swimmers tent to the starting pontoon before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon Swim. Hopping on one leg for such a great distance would have put du Toit at a distinct disadvantage – and her fellow competitors immediately saw the injustice of such a decision – that was ultimately overruled.
Rules and policies can be changed – for the better of the sport.
© 2023 Daily News of Open Water Swimming
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