Check out this story about the Ben Hair Memorial Open Water Swim Meet
As the dust settled on Lake Anna after the 2013 Ben Hair Memorial Open Water Race, we wanted to take stock of where we were, and where we'd come from. We had a great year, growing the race to over 200 athletes and 233 total "splashes". One of the first things that stood out were the number of young swimmers in the event: there were 70 athletes who were 12 & under (42 girls, 28 boys), including 25 athletes ages 10 & under. This is a very encouraging number, and there was only 1 DNF, safely escorted by race marshalls back to the finish are. So, mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.
These racers are the future of our sport, and in addition to acknowledging their presence, we absolutely must understand how we are serving them. How was their experience? Was it positive? Was it safe? Was it a great introduction to Open Water swimming, building critical skills and confidence? What can we do better?
From a survey of smiles, we can surmise that the experience was positive on the overall and we certainly feel that we go above and beyond to cover the safety aspects. Beyond these basics, however, answering the other questions is more difficult. Do we have to wait until next year to see how many athletes return before we know how we really did? How about learning from others: How do other USS sanctioned open water races create a positive and safe environment for the next generation of swimmers? Who can we compare notes with, who can we learn from, emulate and perhaps inspire to take open water to the next level by preparing young athletes to experience the full joy of the sport that we are so inspired by?
To find the answers to this question, I began some internet research on open water events, searching LSC web sites for result sheets, Googling "open water race united states swimming", and such, but the going was slow. So, I turned to USA Swimming, figuring that they would be able to send me volumes of competition data, with result sheets from all over the country. The result? Colorado Springs doesn't have that information. While pool results are fed to USA Swimming headquarters' competition database, open water results, for whatever reason, are not recorded in a central location. The only thing that they DO track is the number of "one-day" registration, that is, the number of non-USS people who pay a small fee to participate in an open water race ... mostly adults. USA spokespersons indicated that the lack of precision and comparability in race distances makes it somewhat irrelavant to use for ranking athletes -- agreed. But there are many other reasons to track results, chiefly, rates of participation. What type of events draw the largest crowds? What distances see the most finishes and DNF's in the various age groups? Are there certain times of year that see the greatest participation rates? Which races have consistently strong attendance? Until we start tracking it, we just won't know.
The 70 young swimmers that attended our event this year represents at the very least, a glimpse into the huge level of interest and enthusiasm in open water existing in the USA Swimming population - there are some USS open water races that barely reach 70 bodies in total participation across all age groups! The degree to which they return next year may help us to understand how well our race served as an intro to open water. But should we rely solely on trial and error? The time has come for us to start tracking this data, because no knowing where we are makes it a lot harder to get to where we want to go.
A number of years ago, USA Swimming instituted changes to the Junior and Senior national system of meets to address concerns within the coaching community and within the leadership of our sports governing body. These concerns were largely based on a desire to have a system of meets that would serve as a series of integrated steps that led logically to excellence on the international stage. Those systemic changes have continued to evolve over the years to the current system of a single long course summer and junior national system.
As we begin to think about the growth of the sport of open water swimming, it is natural that we are turning a critical eye towards the current system of advancement for our open water athletes. The governing body and coaches have set up an open water national team, national championships, and support our elite open water swimmers in many positive ways, and our athletes in turn have made their way onto many international podiums ... but as the world open water scene grows, we must continue to evolve and improve our system of advancement.
The Road to U.S. Nationals is Through the Pool - Are There Better Ways?In the U.S., athletes wishing to simply compete in an international distance race such as 5k or 10k face significant obstacles. Simply put, the demands of the pool season and constraints of weather limit opportunities for racing to late spring (primarily May) and late summer (primarily September). Perhaps because of this scarcity of races, the only way of qualifying for US Open Water nats is to meet a pool qualifying standards (800 or 1500) or by placing in the top 15 of a world cup event (of which there are exactly Zero held in the US in the 2013 calendar):
That is not to say that these standards are unreasonable, they are not. Corresponding roughly to the qualifying times for the summer Junior nationals, they are certain to weed out the pretenders. Nor is it to say that we should not have pool standards, since there will still be cases where geographic and climatic constraints eliminate opportunity for some athletes, even if we were to expand the open water meet calendar significantly.
However, it is my opinion that there are still a couple of ideas that we should consider as we look to the future:
Some Alternative ModelsAll of this is not to say that the current approach to qualifying does not insure a high level of competition - it surely succeeds in that regard. But the path to achievement is tipped in favor of older, often post-collegiate swimmers with a record of success in pool events. At the very least, the current pool system could be enhanced to better reflect the endurance demands of the actual international race distances, and to acknowledge that there is far more to success in open water than simply having a good aerobic engine. The following are a few ideas that have been put forth for consideration:
ConclusionsAs we move forward it is important that we consider the pathway that we lay out for our athletes, providing a wide range of opportunity to athletes regardless of their geographic and climatic challenges. In the end, this may also help to insure that we continue to see those folks with the greatest open water potential find their way to the top step of the podium.
Author Robert Burgholzer is currently helping with the Ben Hair Open Water Meet which features a 5k and a team time trial, on May 18, 2013. His other works can be found at http://athleticalgorithm.wordpress.com
What's an Open Water Team Time Trial (TTT)?The Team Time Trial, or "Team Pursuit" as it's officially known in FINA parlance, is a race in which teams of 4 or more people swim as a group with the goal of having the 4th person cross the finish line with the fastest possible time. Inspired by the TTT in cycling which features in such races as the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, the outcome of this race is determined as much by the most effective use of the draft as it is by the raw speed of the team members. Drafting has the potential to reduce drag by over 25% in "single file" drafting and up to 20% in "lateral drafting". While the basic concept is easy to understand, very little is known about open water drafting formations with more than 2 swimmers and the maximum benefit that may be achieved. The goal in this race is ultimately to use the draft to increase the rate of speed of your slowest swimmer over the given distance. What formation will be best: the "V" used by migrating geese, clustered like a pod of dolphins, a single file line, or a multi-column line with 2 or more swimmers abreast?? In our race, coaches will be required to accompany their team in a kayak to help monitor safety, but this will likely also benefit the group as the coach should be able to help them maintain proper pacing without dropping their 4th swimmer. What techniques will the most effective coaches employ to keep their swimmers barreling along on the edge of disintegration?
The Gestation, Birth & History of the Open Water TTT (or Team Pursuit)We have literally been planning (OK, thinking about) this "Team Time Trial" for years now, but never got it of the ground until this summer's event at the Ben Hair Open Water race. We are pretty convinced that this is an idea who's time has come, I mean, bike racers long ago realized that drafting made you faster, and that if you draft off of someone who wants you to do it you can really maximize your advantages - so the team time trial is a natural expression of the ultimate in hydrodynamics and team building.
Well, it turns out that if you have a great idea, often, someone else has it too :). This idea, is not entirely novel, having been run swum at the 2011 World OW championships (see here for the report of Team USA's victory). Heck, if you want to get literal, apparently there has been an annual 12k team pursuit (that's 12k, twelve kilometers, not a typo) run in Japan for 65 years consecutively. That said, the event is most certainly a rarity, with literally no known events being staged in any domestic races on the 2013 OW calendar (though there was one in the 2012 NC champs). In fact, when we were going through the sanction process this year, it seemed that it is not really considered an event by USA swimming, but it does merit an entry in the OpenWaterPedia under the name of "Team Pursuit". There are also several interesting mentions across the web:
So, Why Hasn't This Caught On??This is the million dollar question, the answer just may be: "cause WE hadn't popularized it"! However, it may also be that swimming has come from a long history of thinking of itself as "an individual sport", even though few have more fun than in a really crucial relay. One possibility is techique: until we learn how to do it well it will provide as much frustration as fun. My guess is that we need to keep hosting them, talking about them, and specifically, raising the stakes at the international level: a presence in the World Champs at every edition will be a great start.
The Real Benefits of the TTTBut all of the fun and games aside, the virtue of this event may lie in that it provides a test of drafting skills, skills that can be enhanced by training for and competing in TTT events. For athletes trying to learn to draft effectively for use in open water races and triathlons, the ever-quotable triathlon coach Dave Luscan put it this way "if you can't draft off of someone who wants you to draft them finding feet in a tri ain't happening!". So come out and put your skills to the test - this year Ben Hair Open Water Race will provide an opportunity to experience this unique race and we hope you will take advantage of it.
The spring/summer competitive swimming calendar in the US is so short and dense, there is little time and opportunity to focus on open water. Even teams whose winter competitive season ends by April 1st there is only 10 weeks between that day and say Jun 15th when the summer racing calendar really kicks in. Then, there are only about 6 weeks from mid June till summer sectionals. For swimmers who have yet to qualify for sectionals the season is even shorter. Unless someone were to host a pool meet in the June/July timeframe that had an extra open water distance session (which may be an idea who's time has come!) that leaves only April and May for open water racing.
So where are the races? And how many feature internationals distances (5/10k)? Well, they are few and far between, especially in the mid-Atlantic where water temps limit us to the last 2-3 weeks in May But they do exist, and here they are:
I am a little shocked at how few USS open water races there are in April-May, so let me know in the comments if I've missed some. Special thanks to the calendar at http://www.usopenwaterswimming.org/2013OWCalendar.htm
The Ben Hair Memorial Open Water meet is a USA Swimming sanctioned event, but it is open to USA Swimming members and non-members alike. Coaches and team directors can download the official Virginia Swimming meet announcement. Teams and swimmers with the ability to submit entries via a Hytech Meet Manager Commlink file or via a TeamUnify electronic entry are encouraged to do so. All others may submit paper entries using the following instructions.