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The Unspoken, Unwritten Etiquette Of Open Water Drafting

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

It is unfair. It is frustrating. It is cheating.

So goes the thought process of some open water swimmers.

It is classic tactics. It is strategic. It is all part of the sport.

So goes the completely reverse thought process of other open water swimmers. Which is correct? Is drafting cheating or is it strategic? Is it unfair or is it part of the sport?

Neither side of the argument will ever convince the other side of their viewpoint of drafting. It is a debate without conclusion.

Our viewpoint most definitely sides with those who think drafting is part of the sport.

But the question remains: in a draft-legal open water swimming competition, is it good or bad etiquette to draft off another person for all, majority or any part of a race, and then swing around and try to beat them at the end?

At the highest end of the competitive open water swimming, professional marathon races or triathlons, this is precisely the well-accepted and understood strategy of all swimmers and triathletes. But what about at local open water swims among amateurs and masters swimmers?

We believe drafting is fair and part of the sport, but there also is an unspoken and unwritten etiquette that is also part of the sport. Fundamentally and specifically, impeding by occasional hitting or pulling on the lead swimmer is flat-out unfair, continuous tapping on the feet of the lead swimmer is simply uncool. This is true whether or not there are officials in the race.

While we do not believe that swimmers should necessarily take turns at leading as well as drafting, we are also unequivocally believe that impeding another swimmer’s progress is an act of unsportsmanlike behavior at any level whether at the professional or amateur level.

The purposeful act of impeding especially feels wrong among amateurs who simply want to participate for fitness and a sense of accomplishment.

Among professional swimmers and competitive elite and masters swimmers, drafting is an acquired and respected skill. 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., replicating 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 a tactic that some athletes employ. But drafting without physicality is what the very best do extraordinarily well, from Maarten van der Weijden to Thomas Lurz.

While some athletes are renowned for leading races from the front, most pros and amateurs prefer to draft strategically and make their moves during the late stages of races. They know that they can effectively conserve their energy through drafting and smart positioning and then moving into the lead or near the leader with 5-10% of the race left.

While some individuals might think this strategy 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 and constantly bumping into lead swimmer 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 – the lead swimmer can also simply stop or do some easy backstroke or breaststroke until the trailing swimmer has passed and you have switched positions on your drafting opponent.

Photo of swimmers drafting at the European Open Water Swimming Championships by Giorgio Scala.

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