Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wetsuit or no wetsuit...?

There's been a bit of chat in the OW swimming world over the last few days following an article by Scott Zornig, President of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, in which he (among other issues) sets out his own strongly held view that wetsuits have no place in marathon swimming (with some exceptions such as swimmers with disabilities). He is very clear in the article that these are his own views (although they are presented under the SBCSA logo) and while I don't fully agree with him, it's an issue around which there is a lot of controversy within the community and one worthy of discussion. So I thought I'd throw in my penny's worth.

I should start by saying that in many ways, I agree with Scott Zornig - I think that to say that you have swum the Catalina Channel or the English Channel is to say that you did it without a wetsuit and in accordance with the fairly standardised rules that the governing bodies of most marathon swim organisations use to regulate their swims. I also agree with him that most people, with sufficient attention to training, acclimatisation and body fat can eventually make themselves able to swim in open water without a wetsuit. Indeed, I often find myself encouraging people to abandon the neoprene, just because of what I think is the enhanced pleasure of non-wetsuit swimming. But I also feel that not everyone wants to do that for all kinds of reasons, and that this too is a legitimate choice - it's supposed to be a leisure activity, after all. Such a person will never swim the Channel (in the conventional, regulated sense), but they might swim it with a wetsuit on. This still is a fabulous achievement and one which only a tiny proportion of people could even contemplate attempting; it will require hard training, and will still probably be a massive and significant event in that person's life. Scott Zornig argues that the title "marathon swimmer" does not apply to this individual because it is not a "swim". Instead, he proposes describing it as a "Water Adventure" or a "Water Exhibition" in the hope that this will stop people "raining on the parade of true marathon swimming accomplishments."

And I think that it is here that I think we start to see the real source of tension between wetsuit swimmers and non-wetsuit swimmers - the problem of self-misrepresentation. It seems to me that the problem is not that people do these marathon swims in wetsuits, but that some people are not entirely straightforward and open about having done so. Without wanting to name any specifics here, we are all aware of high-profile, media hungry swims that have been extremely quiet about their use of wetsuits whilst at the same time presenting them in such a way that people will assume they are done without one. My reading of Scott Zornig's articles is that he feels that the label "marathon swim" facilitates this misrepresentation, and he wants to reclaim it for non-wetsuit swimming to protect the category. But I'm not so sure that this is the way to go. It seems to me that this title could easily be rehabilitated to include a wide range of impressive swimming achievements, if this occurred alongside the standardised inclusion of wetsuit / non-wetsuit status; I think that we should broaden the definition rather than narrow it. And perhaps the only way that this can be done is by being more accepting of wetsuit swimming as one part of our amazing sport; making people feel ashamed of swimming with a wetsuit (by likening it to illegal doping, for example) will only make it harder for people to be straightforward about the kind of swim they have chosen to do, and to celebrate those swims. Even with the wetsuit, a long swim is a long swim, and I am uncomfortable with the notion of a "true" form of marathon swimming to which everything else is subservient.

It's also worth noting that misrepresentation is not confined to the wetsuit issue. I know of plenty of people who list a Channel swim on their sporting CVs without also noting that it was a relay crossing; I also know of someone from this year who has told people that he completed the Channel when in fact he was pulled out 2 miles from the French coast. These are irritating moments, not least because lying is always irritating, but also because, in most cases, the misrepresentation is entirely unnecessary - the vast majority of the non-swimming (and swimming) population consider a Channel relay to be just as outlandishly difficult and impressive as a solo, or quite rightly consider a solo Channel swim that takes you so close to France to be an awesome achievement by any standards.

I don't know what the answer to all this is. To those who are misrepresenting their swims - either because of wetsuits, or whatever else - I would say, get a grip and be a grown-up. And to those who see wetsuit swims as a threat to non-wetsuit swims, I would ask what is at stake in maintaining that distinction so thoroughly, and what might the consequences of that be in terms of alienating potential new members from taking up the sport? I want more people in the water, not fewer, whatever they're wearing.


  1. A nuanced and reasonable take on the issue - thanks Karen.

  2. well said. you speak for me too.

  3. birthday suit!

    but seriously, you have a good point, let's just get more people into the water! :)

  4. Most people who wear wetsuits don't wear them to go faster they wear them because its too cold. Personally becoming good at enduring the cold is not a challenge I have any interest in mastering. I'm swimming the channel next year in a suit. I don't particularly care if a group of people that not many other people care about don't certify the swim. If it means I swam "a mile less" than someone not wearing a wetsuit I can live with that. Will I have swum the channel? Well I wouldn't have walked across did I?

  5. Thanks for your comment. I agree completely with you that increased speed is a side-effect of wetsuit wearing rather than a purposeful strategy - the use of a wetsuit is primarily about the cold. And as you say, some people just don't want to get into the whole issue of enduring the cold, but would prefer to focus on the distance challenge. And of course it's swimming, and unlike Scott Zornig, I don't see wetsuit / non-wetsuit swimming as two different sports, but rather, two branches of the same sport, and so while Zornig wouldn't recognise a wetsuit swim as a 'swim', I think that's unnecessarily divisive and a little ridiculous. But I also think that de facto understandings of a having 'swum the Channel' assume a non-wetsuit swim, and it is important to be clear about the conditions under which a swim was completed as a simple point of fact (rather than as a confession, as it is often framed). I think it's a tremendous achievement, in a wetsuit or not. It's exciting, and fun, and one of the most exhausting, extraordinary things I have ever had the chance to do - none of that changes with / without a wetsuit. I think that the snobbery about wetsuit swimming within some of the Channel swimming community forces many wetsuit swimmers into a very defensive position which doesn't help the sport in any way, and taints a splendid adventure quite unnecessarily. Good luck with your training, and for your swim next year - maybe see you on the beach in Dover!

  6. Yes I agree totally with you both, I really don't see the point of enduring the cold with open water swimming..., its like trying to climb mount Everest with minimal clothing. what's the point. Ian From Malta


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