By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, May 17, 2017
In the enclosed confines of a pool, most factors are controlled and standardized. The pool temperature. The lane line widths. The water depths. Competitive swimming is often touted as “swimming against one’s self.” There are no opponents who can directly challenge you. No one will grab your feet, swim in front of you, slow you down. There is no one stopping you from breaking a world record, except for you. A lane is a lane is a lane, and if you have one, you have an opportunity, whether you’re swimming in Santa Clara or Buffalo.
But long before there were standardized, temperature-controlled pools — we’re talking eons before — there were vast, blue horizons of open water. Where currents flowed. Where waves crashed. Where the environment was anything but controlled.
In many ways, open water swimming is a return to that ancient environment of aquatic freedom. It is a return to the waves, to the currents, to the sunshine and to the fresh air. So many swimmers, burned out and smelling like chlorine, often find solace in an open lake or ocean side to find that free feeling, that weightless joy experienced by humans throughout the ages. Open water swimming is a return to the natural state of swimming.
Competitive open water swimming is also, one would argue, a chess match of strategy, skill, and determination. People hear the word “swimming” and assume, like its cousin competitive swimming, both sports are the same. The freestyle motions are the same. The people, largely, are the same. The idea itself — swim from here to there — is the same.
But the actual nitty gritty strategies couldn’t be more different.
If competitive swimming is all about the clock, open water swimming is all about competitors. Ironically, one must turn to those vast open water horizons to experience a sport largely dictated by other people. There is strategy. There is pacing. There are risky moves. Like watching the Kentucky Derby, it is less about time, and more about who makes the right move, and when. One false move, you lose. One ill-timed acceleration, and you could kiss goodbye any hope for victory.
On the other hand, one right, beautifully-executed maneuver, and the race is yours.
This weekend’s Open Water National Championships signals a rejuvenation in our species’ return to the wild waters. Open water swimming has never been more popular across the world, and its overseas popularity seems to be catching on here in the United States. Before there were pools, there were lakes. Before there were races to best times, there were races to the end of the lake and back. It is deceivingly simple in that way — “swim 10k, and the first person to the finish line wins.” Within that simplicity is a confounding array of nuanced strategy, which several of this weekend’s competitors know and embrace.
Olympians Haley Anderson and Jordan Wilimovsky headline this weekend’s event, taking place in Castaic Lake, California. Entering the battle arena with them are a slew of experienced open water veterans like Eva Fabian and Andrew Gemmell. This weekend serves as a qualifier for a slew of major rosters, including our National Team roster and the World Championship roster. The participants know this, and are prepared, and ready.
If you’ve never watched an open water race, it’s sort of like watching a soccer match. The first time, you could wonder what exactly you’re witnessing. But from start to finish, you realize how much strategy, thought, and maneuvering goes into each and every single race. And, like becoming a soccer fanatic, open water swimming captures the best of competitive swimming — the motion, the freedom, the will power, the determination — with the excitement of a chess match — the maneuvering, the strategy, the long-view.
Oh yeah — all in the currents and waves and unpredictability of the open water.
Don’t miss it.