SHERBROOKE, Que. – It takes a special breed of athlete to enjoy competitive open-water swimming.
Some of the competitors for Friday’s five-kilometre event at the Canada Summer Games were excited.
Others were less than thrilled to be swimming in Lac Memphremagog.
“It’s fun, it’s different,” said Toronto’s Oliver Straszynski. “There’s a lot more strategy involved because you can drag off people. It’s not just swimming, there’s tactics. It’s not that hard until the very end.”
The 16-year-old Straszynski is an experienced long-distance swimmer with six open-water swimming races under his belt, including the 2012 junior world championships. His experience and appreciation for the race is different from Edmonton’s Sophia Saroukian, who’s only done open-water swimming at the age-group nationals in Montreal in 2011.
“It’s very intense. The girls are very catty,” said the 15-year-old. “It’s very aggressive, they’ll scratch, they’ll push each other so you just gotta watch out for that.”
That’s one of the ways open-water swimming is different from doing laps in a pool. All the athletes start in a large group without any lanes and then follow a course around an open body of water. Sometimes it’s five laps of one kilometre, other times it’s two 2.5 kilometre laps. As the race wears on the swimmers space out into a single-file line, relying on each other’s wake to get pulled along.
The mass start leads to a lot of contact, even though grabbing another swimmer or purposely striking them is an instant disqualification. Straszynski recalls being battered at the 2012 junior world championships.
“Pretty much the whole race I was sandwiched between a big Russian dude and a big Chinese dude and I was getting hit pretty badly,” said Straszynski. “No one’s trying to hurt other people, it’s just you’re in really close together and when you’re swimming you get sucked into each other.”
Physical contact isn’t the only problem for open-water swimmers. Water temperatures can be lethal if they’re too high. American Fran Crippen died in 2010 during a 10-kilometre World Cup event in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, when water temperatures were reportedly above 30 C. Several swimmers pulled out of the open water competition at the FINA world championships in Beijing in 2011 after the water temperature peaked at 32.6 C.
FINA, swimming’s international governing body, addressed the issue on July 16 when it set its limit for open-water swimming at 31 C. That’s still warmer than the United States’ domestic threshold, which was set at 29.45 C in the wake of Crippen’s death.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Jade Dusablon, a 19-year-old from Quebec City. She’s one of the most experienced open-water swimmers at the Canada Summer Games, having completed 15 races.
Although the entire open-water swimming community is aware of Crippen’s death and FINA’s new rule, most Canadian swimmers aren’t particularly concerned about the water being too hot.
“You’re more worried about just freezing up,” said Straszynski. “You can’t feel your hands, you can’t feel your arms. You’re just kind of numb. You hit a rhythm at about (2.5 kilometres).
“Your arms are just kind of spinning off momentum and your legs are just trailing behind. You’re really not kicking for 5k.”
The swimmers also have to deal with the natural wildlife in the lakes and rivers the events are staged in.
“My first time, I was 13, I was freaking out because I was pulling seaweed,” said 16-year-old Esraa Abdel Khalik of Mississauga, Ont. “I went to a pretty clean lake my first time but there was still seaweed obviously and I was going completely off course.
“I have no idea what this lake looks like so I’m hoping there’s not a lot of seaweed or there’s small fish because I’m not good with big fish.”
Added Straszynski: “Me either. I’m scared of fish.”
Despite being hit by other swimmers, issues with water temperatures, seaweed and fish, none of the swimmers are particularly concerned with their safety, since there are boats trailing the racers or keeping pace alongside them.
“I know that there’s a lot of security around the circuit,” said Dusablon. “I’m not really worried about it.”