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What Can Be Done When A Swimmer Is Down

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Nearly every marathon swimmer enters the depths of despair at one (or many) points of their swim. It may be due to jellyfish stings, sore backs, injured shoulders, strong currents, outgoing tides, large waves, cold water or frustration with the distance covered.

What do swimmers and their crews do under these circumstances?

It depends on the athlete and their crew. What works for an 18-year-old may not be appropriate for a 45-year-old man.

While everyone is not be treated the same way because they have different motivations, idiosyncrasies and character, the World Open Water Swimming Association recommends five general principles and guidelines:

1. Establish order and define responsibilities among one’s crew.

2. Stay positive throughout the swim

3. Stay vocal during the swim

4. Offer comfort food at important times

5. Stay engaged and communicate

Everyone on the escort boat should not only know their role and lend a hand when necessary, they should also be able to immediately identify (a) who will pull the swimmer if necessary, (b) who will dive into the water as necessary, (c) who documents the swim in an Observer’s log, (d) who is in charge of hydration and refueling, (e) who is the navigator and (f) who is the communicator if the swim is being reported in real-time online.

A shift schedule can be written down, placed in waterproof bags and then posted so everyone on board knows the pre-determined schedule. The same is true for the drinks in the feeding schedule.

While documentation and plotting of the course is important, when a swimmer is in distress, this hierarchy and structure immediately enables the entire support crew to know how to react in an emergency. Clear definitions of what everyone does is one part of the marathon swimming puzzle.

It is also important to smile, wave and cheer throughout the swim. This simply act will help the swimmer feel greatly appreciated and special. Frowns, yawns and shaking of one’s head have a negative impact on the swimmer’s mentality which should be avoided even as the swimmer temporarily enters the vortex of despair.

Repeatedly asking a swimmer, “How are you doing?” is a natural question that every crew wants to ask, but the implication of this question does not generate the motivation that swimmers in distress should hear. If a swimmer is cold or injured, and he or she has to constantly answer how they feel by their crew members, this effectively helps make an athlete feel even colder or worse. So instead of “How are you going or how do you feel?”, coaches can make positive statements such as “You have swum 0.5 kilometers in the last 10 minutes.” or “Do you want a banana?” or “Remember all your training and cold-water workouts.” The swimmer will relay what they want no matter what question they are asked.

Based on an average stroke count (e.g., 60 strokes per minute), the crew should especially be on the look-out for stroke counts that fall by more than 10%. This is a clear indication of a troubled athlete who requires greater vigilance. Therefore, the entire crew should know what that average stroke count is and it should be stated out loud for everyone to hear.

Most people have a favorite food that they love eating – anytime and anywhere. It could be a piece of chocolate, an exotic fruit or their grandmother’s cookies. It could be special flavored drink or pasta or bread. Whatever it is, the coach can save this food or drink and give it to the swimmer at the opportune time, especially when that vortex of despair starts to take the athlete down. For example, if the water is cold and the swimmer is miserable, the coach can hand over their favorite cookie in order to draw attention to fond memories and good feelings rather than the immediate discomfort of cold water.

Eyes should always be on the swimmer. Hand signals, written messages on white boards, whistles and cheers always enable to swimmer to feel special and knowledgeable, but these actions also help the support crew to feel part of the community and team. Messages written on a white board should be succinct and clearly written in large black block letters. “Dolphins ahead” or “3 kilometers to go” or “Your wife is waiting on shore“.

The sport of marathon swimming is a very lonely sport without the fanfare. But with modern technology like Skype, GPS units, SPOT tracking systems, website forums and waterproof digital cameras, the support crew can bring alive the swimmers to a worldwide audience. Both onshore and on-land support team members should receive information on the swimmer’s progress, either by public announcements or specific text messages from appointed race directors. In a race, this same information should be broadcast throughout the venue – with a quick (2 hour maximum) limit as to when the full results are posted.

These communications allow friends, family and fans to share in the experience and send texts and messages to the support crew. The best and most meaningful or touching of these messages can then be relayed to the swimmer.

The global market is ready for open water swimming emerge beyond Popsicle sticks and result posted on pieces of paper within 400 meters of the finish. Whether it is a solo swimmer or a race, the sport can greatly take advantage of the modern tools of communications.

The experienced communities in the English Channel and Catalina Channel do a remarkable job keeping their global members fully informed of the progress made by their colleagues.

Copyright © 2011 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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