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Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympic Marathon Swim – A Seminal Moment In Open Water

When 25 women and 25 men dive into the Serpentine during the 2012 London Olympic Games, mankind’s relationship vis-à-vis the open water will undergo its greatest transformation since Captain Matthew Webb first crossed the English Channel in 1875.

It will be a seminal moment in open water swimming history, but more importantly, it will help to profoundly transform mankind’s thoughts regarding swimming in oceans, lakes, bays and rivers.

Watching the world’s fastest swimmers compete in a 6-loop course in a man-made lake in the middle of one of the world’s greatest urban parks will open up the eyes of many in the global community.

Webb’s transformative swim across the English Channel was reported via 19th century means and was never witnessed by anyone other than those relative few who were on his escort team.

Swims like Lynne Cox’s swim across the Bering Strait or Lewis Pugh’s swim in the North Pole or Martin Strel’s stage swim down the Amazon or Diana Nyad’s attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida were certainly shown and archived on YouTube and TV news. Their extreme exploits were widely broadcast by various news agencies around the world. But these pioneering swimmers were doing extraordinarily rare swims; outlandish exploits that could never reasonably be attempted or completed by anyone by a select few who were sufficiently prepared, trained and financed.

Conversely, the 50 finalists of the Olympic marathon swim will be swimming in a flat lake during summer in relatively warm water and comfortable conditions in a protected venue readily accessible to millions in one of the world’s best-known cities.

The 50 marathon swimmers will swim fast, but will demonstrate to a live worldwide television and online audience that swimming outside a pool can be enjoyable, exciting and entertaining.

Like snowboarders in winter and triathletes in summer, the open water swimmers will showcase their skills, enticing millions of people around the world to give their sport a shot.

The impression of "it can’t be done" will change to "I want to give it a try."

For millennium, swimming in the open water was not within the realm of mankind’s possibilities. Most humans feared swimming in the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. With the exception of fisherman and sailors, most people considered the open water to be dangerous and mysterious.

Throughout history, people could not possibly imagine a sport like open water swimming. Swimming was neither a hobby nor a sport for tens of thousands of year. The shorelines created natural boundaries where people never crossed.

But over the last century, that fear of the unknown has been replaced by the challenge of the open water. Mothers now buy goggles for their children instead of telling them to avoid the water. Fathers who never ventured themselves in deep water watch with pride as their sons surf, paddle or compete in the open water.

On August 9th (women) and 10th (men), millions of people worldwide will simultaneously watch the Olympics swimmers demonstrate the beauty and majesty of swimming in the open water. While they swim for nearly 2 hours in Hyde Park, they will nearly be indistinguishable but for their swim caps and numbers on their hands and shoulders.

Swimmers from 34 countries on 5 continents will prove that men and women can swim safely and expertly in the open water. Others will not be so fast, so proficient or so dedicated, but the joy they share in the open water can be equal to that experienced by the Olympians. The swimmers will inspire their fellow citizens in small countries like Hong Kong and Guam, in large countries like Russia and China, in tropical countries like Malaysia and in mountainous countries like Switzerland. African, Asian, European or American, viewers of the marathon swimmers will be inspired to attempt their own open water swim.

Non-swimmers will be fascinated by the ability of these Olympic swimmers to compete in a venue where they are no lane lines and no walls, no stopping and no mercy. The sleek, streamlined nature of Olympic pool swimmers spending hours per day training in expensive air-conditioned, climate-controlled structures and competing with one person per lane is as foreign to most humans as is a dialect spoken on Papua New Guinea.

But every human on Earth knows of an open body of water. They can imagine walking down to the shoreline, and if properly prepared, swimming past waist-deep water. The cost is free, the opportunities are endless, and the restrictions are few.

When the world watches the marathon swimmers, they will appreciate the sense of adventure and the feeling of accomplishment that the Olympians realize. They will enjoy the thrill of competition and appreciate the ambiance of the outdoors.

And they will want to give it a try in lakes, rivers, bays and oceans around the world in wetsuits and board shorts, with goggles and without, in competition and just for fun.

On August 9th and 10th the eyes of the world will be opened to the possibilities in the open water. Open water will be embraced to various degrees by both the sport’s governing bodies and the general public.

Their acceptance and participation in the sport will lead to endless possibilities and profound changes in the sport – and it will be good.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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