Tracking Participation in Open Water Races

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.