Let’s say you are an ordinary pool swimmer with a tiny bit of open water experience but you have gotten the open-water bug. A chlorinated pool is nice but there are vast oceans, lakes and channels out there. You arrive at the hallowed Olympic Club on November 10, 2018 for an “Open Water Summit” of the World Open Waters Swimming Association (WOWSA). I will skip the part about what made me pay $200 to go to an all-day conference about something that is not my very reason for being and just try to describe what I learned about this world.
The Venue: 9 am, The Olympic Club, oldest Athletic Club in the US
There are big round tables in a large hall, marble statues of Greek wrestlers, in an adjacent room, coffee and pastry is served in real porcelain and a lot of folks, especially women, with wet hair, who have just had an hour work-out in the OC pool with multi-Olympic champion back stroker Aaron Piersol. The conference will end Sunday morning with another swim, this time in the Bay from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park, also led by Piersol. Normally, an Olympic pool racer would not be part of such an event but getting folks out of the pool and into the open water will prove to be part of the agenda here. I feel a sense of community that will grow throughout the day. I even recognize a few swimmers in my own (advanced) age group.
The Program: The day is organized into a series of very short (10 minute) TED-style talks that aim to be inspirational and informative. Inspiration is a necessary ingredient to this genre of affair, but what is it? What I learned from an entire day of what are also called motivational talks is that eloquence mixed with accomplishment comes in many different flavors. For example, the MC for the whole event is a very down-to-earth guy named Steve Munatones. He is not your typically inspirational speaker, and, indeed, he himself never gave a talk at the event. Yet, as the person who invited all the speakers, and who gave a name to many of the competitions for which awards were given, namely the Oceans Seven, he is the person who made the “conquest” of a certain number of swims in the oceans of the world akin to the conquest of certain summits in the world of mountain climbing. A champion swimmer himself—as everyone at this conference was—it is his diligence and hard work that has built the whole WOWSA enterprise. That itself is inspiring.
The first panel of the day was called The Builders, by which seems to have been meant institution-builders. It ranged from a nerdy, stocky swimmer named Evan Morrison who set a record swimming across the Santa Barbara Channel from Santa Cruz Island but who talked only about building a data base to keep track of all the record swims across the world. Another builder was a seemingly ordinary coach from Oakland’s MEMO, Marcia Benjamin, whose pool workouts emphasized dragging sponges and has inspired a diverse group of swimmers to remarkable open water accomplishments (the club acronym stands for Marica’s Enthusiastic Masters of Oakland). Finally Brent Rutemiller, who has recently merged the International Swimming Hall of Fame with the magazine Swimming World and who stands to be a key player in the future of Open Water Swimming.
The second group of speakers was dubbed The Adventurers–swimmers who have pushed the boundaries of the sport. This included Ram Barkai of South Africa, setting new records in “ice swimming” (swimming set distances in pools cut out of ice) and Antonio Arguelles of Mexico who completed the Oceans Seven challenge at the age of 58). Arguelles, who has recently joined the board of WOWSA, offers a more flamboyant counter to Munatones’ more quiet style of inspiration (about which more later). Another adventurer was Cameron Bellamy, speaking on video from Barbados where he was about to circumnavigate the island of Barbados (95 km). A Canadian woman, Jessi Harewicz, talked about other circumnavigations around Vancouver.
A third group of speakers, The Racers, included Shelley Taylor-Smith from Australia who amusingly spoke of the Gender Pay Gap in professional open water swimming. She was the dominant marathon swimmer of the 1980s and 90’s where she was the seven-time world Professional Marathon Swimming Federation champion, frequently “beating the blokes,” as she put it, in such famous swims as the circumnavigation of Manhattan Island back in the days where marathon swimmers were only considered to be male. Olympian Aaron Piersol turned up in this category to speak of his love of ocean swimming and paddling long boards as well as his formative training as a Junior Guard, playing down his pool accomplishments over his return to an original love of the sea since his youthful “retirement” from the pool.
A fourth group of speakers, The Record Setters, was an all-female group that included the Jersey Brit, Sally Minty-Gravett who has crossed the English Channel once every decade over the last 5 decades, culminating her final crossing with an immediate “double crossing” back to Britain in an epic 36 hours. She was followed by Pat Gallant-Charette from Maine who began open water swimming–especially channels and lakes –at the age of 53 and now at 67 has completed 6 of 7 channels in the Oceans Seven and 4 of 8 lakes (including the length of Tahoe) in the “Still Water Eight.” Accompanying videos proved that these two women are neither fast nor even very graceful swimmers but absolute masters of the ability to keep going on. Two younger women swimmers Megan Melgaard and Angel More from the US added speed to this endurance, with the 15 year old Angel More, who has completed 51 Alcatraz crossings and who now competes internationally, giving an accomplished and humorous talk.
A final grouping, called The Pioneers, included a video interview with the French Ben Lecomte, currently en route on a swim from Tokyo to San Francisco to measure plastic waste in the waters as well as the physiological effects of daily ocean swimming on the human body. This pioneering is called a “staged swim” meaning the swimmer swims for an allotted time each day or night, sleeps on a boat, then resumes the course at the same spot, the next day. This swim parallels one he completed a decade earlier across the Atlantic. The lively Ross Edgley, a British swimmer who recently completed a staged swim around the entirety of Great Britain, regaled the audience with a description of the final leg of that journey culminating in a final leg in which hundreds of supporters swam out to meet him in the water and joyously joined him for the finish.
Yet another pioneer would prove to be the absolute topper of all the talks: Lewis Pugh combined the environmentalism of many other talks with an urgent message on the importance of creating Marine Preservation Areas (MPAs). Where other swimmers had mentioned the scenic beauty of a particular swim, the joy of swimming with seals or whales, or the alarming amount of plastic permeating our oceans, Pugh, a record-breaking marathon swimmer whose most recent swim was the length of the English Channel (528 km), shrugs off his record breaking feats in order to focus attention on global warming, over-fishing or any of the other environmental problems that threaten our planet. In the case of the Channel length swim, he used it to call out the need to protect oceans (and thereby ourselves) from the accumulating pollution by plastic.
Where other ice swimmers, like Ger Kennedy, also on the program, use their ability to endure “ice miles” to show off their physical prowess, Pugh uses his, along with his negotiating skill as a maritime lawyer, to forge a treaty with the Russians that has created a vast Marine Protection Area in the arctic sea the size of Texas in the Ross Sea. He clearly love swimming and to see his powerful stroke among the melting icebergs is both inspiring and devastating as we realize he now swims in the melted waters of global warming. Swimming for him is now a means to an end. Pugh recounts the turning point in his life in an early swim in Antartica when he swam over a vast graveyard of whale bones piled so high from the bottom that they nearly broke the surface of the water. He put two and two together: “first the whales, then the seals, then the toothfish (Chilean sea bass), now the krill upon which all life in the Southern Ocean depends.” He now swims to impress heads of state, and indeed, it seems quite possible that the MPA in the Ross Sea would not exist had he not first hit it off with the Russian minister for sport and bonded over the Russian passion for dipping into ice holes.
Local color was added by another portion of the program: the late afternoon awards for the annual Trans Tahoe Relay, won this year by the Olympic Club A team. This event too became an occasion for championing environmentalism with an award to the League to Save Lake Tahoe. An evening gala banquet topped off the day, with most of the awardees transformed from the day’s casual attire to dazzling evening clothes due to the magic of the Olympic Club’s giant locker rooms.
In addition to awards given out by the Guiness Book of World Records, W OWSA honorees included Adrian Sarchet whose North Channel training and successful crossing was the subject of the Film, Sea Donkey screened on Thursday night before the conference. The World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year went to Maragrita Llorens Bagur of Spain whose 37 hour 73 km Chanel swim, though unsuccessful was nevertheless voted the year’s best performance. Finally, WOWSA’s own Antonio Arguelles was voted, for the second time, the Swimming Man of the year.
Kimberly Chambers’ Keynote Address: What was supposed to be the evening’s topper, but was actually an anti-climax (though not without its own emotion) was a full length keynote delivered by the usually accomplished motivational speaker Kimberly Chambers from New Zealand. Chambers is a former ballerina who nearly lost the use of her leg and transmuted into a marathon swimmer upon moving to San Francisco. Her back story is founded upon a typical “overcoming obstacles” formula, which is just fine. But this evening she lost it and self-pity took the upper hand. Apparently having suffered a new kind of physical setback, emotionalism took over as she relied too much on the obstacles with no triumphant overcoming. Perhaps the recent experience was just too raw. I could only think of how easily the genre of the inspirational talk could tip over into narcisstic self absorption and wish that Lewis Pugh were speaking instead.
But the evening was not a loss as more WOWSA award honorees were to be feted and Antonio Arguelles, in particular, was allowed to give his Swimming man of the year speech without the day’s previous time restraint. Visiting as many public schools in Mexico that would let him give an “inspirational” talk to their students as the conqueror of the Oceans Seven, he hit upon an orphanage that seemed unimpressed by his presence. Further interaction revealed that they were actually disappointed that his story made him seem like a super hero whose powers they, as non-swimmers, could never emulate. Realizing that the orphans could not swim, he enlisted the Ministry of Education of the state of Sonora, to set up a swimming academy where the most hyper-active of these non-swimmers learned how to swim (and indeed an accompanying video) showed us the accomplishment of a little kid, apparently as hyperactive as Antonio himself was as a child before learning to channel his energy in swimming.
Of course I realize that this is the sort of clichéd narrative designed to make speaker and audience feel good about themselves. But unlike Chambers’ self-pity, it is the sort of story that inspires good feelings and good feeling was precisely what the entire banquet audience needed at that point in a very long day. A Mariachi band soon marched into the hall to and not long after swimmers and band were dancing along Post Street to Union Square where other revelers joined in the festivities. Just how so many of them managed to get up for the 5:15 morning crossing from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park, I cannot fathom. But that, fellow swimmers, is the WOW in WOWSA!
Linda Williams (8am Calm Swimmer)