Benjamin Hair – Just Swim For Life Foundation

Waterproofing Communities, Saving Lives

USA Swimming Makes Zone Open Water 5k into Nationals Qualifier


The Open Water Development Committee at the 2013 USA Swimming Convention made a small, but very interesting rule change to the qualification standards for 2015 nationals: the winner of each of the 4 Zone Open Water 5k races will qualify for the 2015 National Open Water 5k race. This might seem small, only 4 athletes will receive berths as a result of this, but the implications on the open water community could be profound. Previous qualifying standards were based on either 1500m free pool times, or placement in a FINA World Cup event. We had heard about this soon after the fall convention from H2Okie Aquatic head coach Scott Baldwin, but because it is considered a "qualifying standard change" it didn't get much press. So, we followed up, and here is the official confirmation from USA Swimming Open Water Program Manager Bryce Elser:

This is official and it will apply to 2015 Nats. The Zone Champion in the event of 5km or greater will gain automatic qualification to the 2015 5k OW Nats. This was approved by OW Development Committee at the 2013 Convention and will be applied to the time standards for 2015. This is only a time standard change so the only documentation that there will be on the 2015 OW National Time Standard document.

This is a fantastic development for many reasons, a couple of which are as follows:

  1. It places open water performance as at least as important as pool performance for determining an athletes merits in open water racing.
  2. It gives a distance-specific qualifying opportunity.  With the pool standards we were using a persons performance in a 14-16 minute race was used to predict their performance for a 50-60 minute race.  Innate abilities, not to mention training can make that prediction very inaccurate, potentially eliminating athletes who are better trained, or physiologically better suited to the race.
  3. It gives aspiring open water athletes an incentive to train for the race that they wish to qualify for -- i.e., train for the 5k to race the 5k, not train for the 1500 to get a chance to race for the 5k.
  4. It offers the only opportunities to qualify in an open water race in the US, since all World Cup Open Water events in 2014 are outside of the United States.

While only 4 will qualify, how many athletes will set their sights on the coveted spot in their Zone race? We could very well see a surge in number of participants vying for this spot, and we also may see an increase in the level of preparation of the athletes that attend.  Whatever other outcomes, one can be certain: 4 athletes will earn a spot at 5k open water nationals as a result of winning the zones race.


Tracking Participation in Open Water Races

imageAs 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.

Stage Racing: A New Direction in Open Water

On Saturday May 18th, we will be hosting a unique open water swimming event - a "stage" race. This race will feature all the regular mass-start draft legal action of the typical open water event, but will have the added twist of a Team Time Trial and an overall ranking of athletes based on their total time for the individual open water swim and their teams time for the TTT.  It is this "total time ranking" that defines a stage race - that is, athletes compete in multiple events that each offer different challenges, and the overall winner is that person who holds themself together, limiting their losses on stages that do not play to their strengths, and "taking time out of" their competitors on those that do.  The Ben Hair Memorial Open Water race has individual and Team Time Trial stages, but there are many other ways to run a stage race.  This type of racing is very rare in the swimming world, but with the ever-growing numbers of races and racers, we should expect to see more of them in the near future - suspense, teamwork and fun - what's not to like?
Stage racing is a concept that is most well known in cycling, where competitors race over multiple courses, or stages, and their cumulative time for all stages results in their final ranking for the race. Since these races often give awards for individual stage finishes and for team rankings, this overall time ranking is often referred to as the "General Classification". These types of races abound, with famous traditional races like the Tour de France, and the Giro d'Italia in Europe, and now domestic races such as the Tour of California, the Tour of the Gila and the USA Pro Cycling challenge.
Swimming Stage Races
Swimming stage races are, however, quite rare.  In addition to the 2013 Ben Hair Memorial Open Water race, there are only two other races in the U.S. that fit the bill: the Highland Lakes stage race in Texas, and the Hudson River 8 Bridges Swim in New York.
The Highland Lakes stage race, run in the Austin Texas area, bills itself as "The Worlds First Open Water Stage Race" -  This race features 5 stages, in 5 different lakes with the 2013 edition happening October 23rd through 27th.  This race was first run in 2007 and has been featured in Swimming World's online magazine and the Daily News of Open Water Swimming.  This race is of somewhat moderate proportions, with its "Monster Challenge" stage competition featuring over 15 miles of racing. The overall winner in 2012, Keith Bell, spent just under 7 hours in the water.
The Hudson River 8 Bridges Swim began in 2011, with a general classification awarded for total time in 2012 - - the stage distances are mind-boggling, with the "shortest" stage at 13 miles, and the longest being 19.8 miles.  However, these are all swum down stream, so the individual stages end up under 5-6 hours - still of epic proportions.  The 2012 overall winner, Grace Van Der Byl, completed the race in 31 hours and 47 minutes.
This years Ben Hair Memorial stage race is a sprint-fest by comparison, only two stages with the general classification based on the total time for the individual 5k and the 1k Team Time Trial.  These stages are swum in a single day, however, and will place a real emphasis on the strength of an athletes team, since a strong athlete with a weak team could easily lose a minute or more to a rival with a deeper team.

Rethinking the Qualification System for U.S. Open Water Nationals

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):

Gender Distance 800 LCM 1500 LCM 1000 SCY 1650 SCY
Women 10K 09:03.5 17:18.3 09:59.2 16:43.5
Men 10K 08:23.4 16:14.3 09:13.4 15:39.9
Women 5K 09:09.9 17:38.7 10:11.2 16:55.0
Men 5K 08:32.5 16:36.7 09:25.4 15:56.3

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:

  1. Since they are based on relatively short events (800-1500), there are possible flaws in the way the pool standards are constructed that merit consideration.   By having relatively short pool races act as a surrogate for open water ability, the current cuts place an emphasis on speed over endurance, and pool swimming over open water.  Moreover, the 10k pool standards are faster than the 5k pool standards, whereas we would expect that athletes who excel at 10k might actually be slower in the 1500/1650 than athletes who excel at the 5k.  
  2. A system of open water qualifier meets would help to not only identify those athletes who may have a special propensity for the unique demands of open water swimming, they would also provide a critical proving ground for gaining race experience prior to showing up at nationals or a world cup race.

Some Alternative Models
All 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:


  • Open Water Qualifier Meets:
    • Hold regional Open Water Qualifiers for Nationals, or,
    • Provide a certain number of qualifying slots at pre-specified invitational open water meets.
  • Junior Nationals/Sectionals:
    • Add open water events at junior national meets, with top 10 finishers automatically qualifying for the senior level OW nationals
    • Add open water events at sectionals, with top 3 finishers qualifying for Senior Nats, and top 6 finishers qualifying for Junior Nats
  • Pool meets specifically designed for open-water qualification:
    • Devise a meet framework for a 3-5k pool swim qualifier, and/or:
    • Set qualifying times for the annual postal 3k meet, with mandatory judging/timing criteria equivalent to a dual meet or hosted time trial meet


As 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

All About the Team Time Trial

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 TTT
But 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.

USS 5k Opportunities in the East

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

Entering the 2014 Ben Hair Memorial Open Water Meet

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.

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