Swimming out at sea is more complex than racing to reach for a wall. The winds aren’t stable. The temperature isn’t even. The current cannot be controlled. “It’s not about who can swim the fastest 10k,” said Alex Meyer, American national open water champion. “You have to work with the conditions. There is much more strategy.”
Open water swimming is a new event, added to the summer Olympics in 2008. Qualifying for the Olympic team is more complicated than standard swimming events: American athletes must place in the top two at open water nationals and then in the top 10 at the world championships.
The difficulty of open water swimming became all too real in October at the FINA Open Water 10k World Cup in Fujairah, south of Dubai, when Meyer’s U.S. national teammate Fran Crippen died due to apparent heat exhaustion. According to athletes, the temperature of the water was around the mid to high 80s, with outside temperatures resting at 100 degrees.
Meyer was the first to notice that his friend was missing from the finish line. After alerting officials, he jumped on a jet-ski to investigate the course, spearheading the search for Crippen’s body. Today, he carries Fran’s picture with him wherever he goes, including the first place podium at the Open Water Nationals and Team Trials just four weeks ago. “I have no doubt in my mind that Fran would’ve been standing where I was,” he said.
He will compete at the FINA Shanghai World Championships on July 20th to solidify his spot on the US Olympic team, along with fellow Americans Sean Ryan, Eva Fabian, and Christine Jennings.
Open water swimming is not for the faint hearted. Unpredictable and sometimes volatile conditions set it apart from the relative safety of the 25-meter pool. Even the swimmers can be physically aggressive. “It’s just part of the game,” said Meyer. Without lane ropes, swimmers are free to draft, kick, and swim over their competitors.
For Meyer, this is fun. Growing up near a lake and loving outdoors, he had a natural inclination for the sport. In college, after a 15-minute race, he always felt like he was just getting started. The pool cramped his spirit, and his body needed more space to race.
Ironically, even after increased safety measures prompted by Crippen’s death, conditions at the recent Open Water Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., were startlingly rough. John Flanagan, a long-time coach at Curl-Burke who brought 6 swimmers to the meet, reports watching many swimmers come up to the boat disoriented from the high surf conditions. “Over half of the coaches were sea sick on the boat,” he said. Out of the 43 female swimmers, 15 were pulled from the race.
Training for such an event is no small feat. Flanagan often paces beside Hunter Mill’s Kaitlin Pawlowicz, practicing giving her a “feeding stick” or cups of water. The 2010 All-Met placed 15th in the 10k race and will swim for the University of Texas next year.
According to Curl’s Flanagan, other swimmers stuff packets of energy gels, such as GU, in their suits to prevent a sugar lows, a feeling often accompanied by a light-headedness and a queasy feeling above the stomach. Swimmers turn over onto their backs and rip open the packets while swimming. Pawlowicz also ate ginger before the race to help qualm an upset stomach due to rough conditions.
For Pawlowicz, open water swims provide a different kind of challenge. “You don’t just look at the bottom of a pool,” she said. The open-water experience has also helped her prepare for longer distances in the pool. “Before races like the mile [in the pool], I tell myself that I’ve done a longer distance. This race is no big deal.”
Many open water swimmers are forced into the confines of pools to keep up endurance. Accessible rivers and lakes are sometimes hard to come by, particularly in the colder regions. Flanagan, who owns a boat, takes his swimmers out to the Chesapeake Bay to practice swimming without water breaks when there is little boat traffic.
Meyer trains more yardage to prepare for the longer race, sometimes for several hours straight both in pools and in open water. During those long stretches, which can often be lonely, he sometimes thinks about Crippen — his “imaginary little training partner.” He also tries to emulate race conditions in practice, such as duration, changing speeds, and even the last 200-meter mad dash. “I do a lot of speed work for close finishes,” he said. “You need to have some legs with 200 meters to go.”
This speed work came in handy at the finish at US Nationals, where the high waves created a volatile finish. Meyer says he panicked when Ryan caught a wave 10 meters to go, catching up a full body length. But he held on, coming in with a winning time of 2 hours, 5 minutes 36 seconds.
Said Meyer: “I like the fact that it is purely a race,” said Meyer. “It’s just you versus a bunch of other guys. Ready, set, go.”
Meyer leaves for Open Water Nationals in Shanghai on Tuesday and will compete in the 10K on July 20. Alex will also defend his 25K World Championship title on July 23. Live results will be posted at www.fina.org
Want to try open water out? Every Sunday from 2:30 to 4:30, the Millbrook Quarry in Haymarket, Virginia permits aspiring open water swimmers to practice in its waters. For more information see: http://www.rehabtoracing.com/openwater.php .
Want to race? On August 7th, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network hosts a one and two mile race at Rocky Point Beach in Baltimore, MD. See: http://www.purpleswimbaltimore.org/
Tags: Kaitlin Pawlowicz