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Valuing The Input Of Athletes And Coaches

At the recent United States Aquatic Sports, USA Swimming‘s Board of Directors approved a maximum water temperature of 85°F (29.45°C) for its sanctioned open water events.

What is great about this new rule of USA Swimming is that it was decided in a completely transparent manner and is now set in stone. The rule was developed with the input of athletes, coaches, physicians and officials with years of practical open water swimming experience. The new rule helps establish reasonable parameters for competitive and safe race situations for teenagers and young adults.

During the deliberations, athletes like Alex Meyer and coaches like Rick Walker and John Dussliere expressed their opinions and described their experiences, allowing the non-swimmers in the room to understand the perspective of swimmers. Former marathon swimmers explained their position on swimming in extreme conditions, enabling USA Swimming to fully understand the essence of swimming in difficult and inherently difficult conditions from the perspective of the athletes. Coaches who have been in escort boats for hours with marathon swimmers also provided their perspective to round out a wide variety of information that USA Swimming executives took under consideration.

It was not only a democratic process, but it was a process that truly values the input of athletes and coaches. Very importantly, USA Swimming realizes that its decision is merely one step in establishing a constantly improving vigilance and blanket of safety for its open water events. The organization did not wait for FINA or the triathlon community to come up with recommendations for open water safety based on research done on non-marathon swimmers.

What happens in the open water can be unexpected and unpredictable. This is what happened to Fran Crippen in Dubai and what happened to dozens of other open water athletes who have died or been seriously injured over the past few years. Research by learned professionals can certainly provide guidelines as to what can be expected and what is predictable. However, research by FINA or the triathlon community does not tell us what is unexpected and unpredictable. Governing bodies and organizing committee are wise to establish safety parameters and safety nets based on what CAN go wrong, not what is predicted in a laboratory setting.

Guidelines regarding extreme water temperatures are, in contrast, dependent upon the interpretation of individuals. Even when these individuals are well-meaning and knowledgeable medical professionals, how every human body reacts after 3, 4, 5, 6 or more hours in extreme conditions is not always predictable.

Fran Crippen reportedly died when the water temperature approached 32°C in Dubai which was similar to the water temperature in Shanghai at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships. The air temperature was similarly high and the humidity was exceedingly high. Under these conditions, it is better to call a race short rather than run the risk of having young athletes suddenly sink under the surface of the water, even if there are safety personnel nearby.

It is great to see a group of decision-makers to come together and respect the sport’s athletes and coaches. When the input of athletes and coaches are sought and their recommendations heeded, then the sport is much richer and safer for this democratic, inclusive process.

Photo of the start at the 2010 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Roberval, Canada by Jim Miller.

Copyright © 2011 by Open Water Source

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