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Saturday, June 16, 2012

To Domestique or Not To Domestique In The Open Water

Recently, The Guardian reported that Stuart Hayes, a strong swimmer and cyclist, will help his more touted British teammates, Jonathan and Alistair Brownlee, during the 2012 London Olympics triathlon.

While Hayes will serve as a domestique by leading the way for his teammates with strong swimming and biking legs, it is difficult to imagine the same thing happening in the Olympic marathon swim.

Years ago at the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships, it was publicly reported that the two leading Australian men – Ky Hurst and Grant Hackett – would work together, pulling and pushing each other to strong finishes. The strategy of teamwork and the dual tactics of drafting and positioning never seemed to be implemented. This joint strategy is extremely difficult to execute while the primary focus on each competitor was on qualifying for the 2008 Olympics. So being a domestique was practically not in the cards.

The fundamental problem of implementing a strategy that utilizes an open water swimming domestique is that the larger fields and random draw do not allow easy collusion between swimmers among the international fields and large packs of marathon swimmers. It is highly unlikely that teammates are placed next to one another at the start due to the random draw. Once the race starts, there is simply too much jostling and positioning vis-à-vis the other competitors in close proximity. Whitewater thrashing, close contact and aggressiveness among the swimmers are the practical in-race barriers that prevent teammates from easily finding one other. Even with swim caps of the same color and the same 3-letter country code, it is usually too difficult for the friendly teammates to see and pull alongside their fellow countryman.

If the open water swimmers cannot find each other or position themselves next to one another, they can neither protect nor help one another.

Of course, serving as an open water domestique can be done, but there are also additional barriers to implementation.

At the international level, athletes are competing for medals, series points, money, sponsorship, media attention and pride. This is a profoundly self-oriented motivation. These five goals are difficult to suppress for the world-class athlete. They train, they sacrifice, and therefore each of them wants to win and reach their potential.

Additionally, every race is different. One bad buoy turn, one yellow card, one wrong navigational decision, and the favored swimmer loses to the underdog...and can drop or lose their domestique. The unexpected can happen in the blink of an eye. World-class open water swimmers know this, and possess a mindset of victory from the get-go.

So it is hard to imagine the concept of domestiques at the highest echelons in the open water swimming world, although this has been the assumed strategy of some countries.

On the flip side of the equation, swimming with a buddy, younger athletes or less experienced swimmers is practiced often in the amateur events and mass participation races. Swimming alongside a teammate is helpful, enjoyable and a safe strategy. And in the amateur open water swimming world, this buddy can be a newly found friend who you just met on the shoreline - or even a swimmer of similar ability who pulls up alongside you mid-race.

To domestique or not to domestique, that is a question in the open water.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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