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The Long History of the 1-Hour Swim

A 60-minute annual rite of passage

Elaine Howley | November 15, 2016

In 1977, a still-young U.S. Masters Swimming organization got a new event—the 1-hour swim. The concept was to challenge swimmers to see how far they could swim in one hour during the month of January. Sounds simple, right? Maybe, but for many swimmers it’s been an aspirational event, and for others, it’s become an annual test of grit and stamina that lays the groundwork for the spring pool and summer open water seasons.

According to an April 1990 article by Joann Leilich that appeared in Wavemaker, the newsletter of DC Masters, Dale Petranech launched the event as a way of encouraging more people to get ready for swimming longer distances in open water. A 2014 Honor Contributor inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Petranech was involved in organizing dozens of open water competitions around the country and served as Chair of the AAU’s Long Distance Committee and Chair of the United States Swimming Long Distance Committee.

In addition to serving FINA in a variety of administrative roles for open water swimming, Petranech was active in launching FINA’s consideration of adding open water swimming as an Olympic sport. He also organized an “unofficial” marathon exhibition during the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984. Understanding the challenge of leaping from pool to open water, Petranech figured that a 1-hour swim held in January would be a smart way to attract new swimmers to open water while getting them ready for the rigors of wild swimming in a substantial way.

Nancy Ridout, past USMS president and veteran 1-hour swimmer says the event offers a unique challenge. “It’s not like an open water swim. It’s hard to go up and down the lane and do the turns. And it’s different from a swim meet because you never saw anybody and never saw anyone other than your team. It’s really hard to do,” she says.

Despite the challenge—or perhaps because of it—the event took off immediately. Leilich writes, “it was popular right from the start, attracting 174 swimmers from 27 clubs the first year, and more than doubling the next year to 382 swimmers and 63 clubs including swimmers from Australia, Canada, and England.”

Ridout says she hopped in with the event in its first year after seeing a notice printed in a 1977 issue of the USMS newsletter SWIM MASTER. “I showed it to our coach who became very excited about it, so two of us on the team did the inaugural one. It’s grown to be the only thing in the year really that the whole team focuses on and trains for a couple months for,” she says.

Participants swim the event in their home pools and record their distances. In the early days, they submitted all their information on paper to DC Masters. Leilich—who ran the event for her club for many years—would check the information and compile it. Crunching all the data could take up to two months, and it required the tireless effort of a handful of volunteers each spring.

Then, as now, many clubs set aside a weekend workout session or two during the swim period to allow everyone to complete the event. This makes the 1-hour swim both a good fitness tool and a team bonding experience that builds camaraderie. “It’s the event that people love to hate, but they all do it,” Ridout says.

In 1978, the event became a USMS National Championship event. Beginning in the early 1990s, different clubs could bid for and run the event, and the host club changed from year to year. This helped further grow the already popular event. In 2016, 2,335 swimmers completed the event, making it USMS's largest national championship event.

From 2011 through 2016, USMS partner Speedo was the title sponsor of the event as well as our other ePostal National Championships. Their involvement helped raise awareness of the event outside of USMS.

In 2014, the event was updated to enter the digital age, and it’s now easier than ever to participate and results come back within a few days rather than months. Long gone are the paper entries and painstaking tallying; these days, participants need only access a computer to input their details and the results are calculated much faster. Event t-shirts are still mailed by hand, however, by the hosting club. The event name was updated to reflect this electronic change, becoming the USMS 1-Hour ePostal National Championship.

Although this event has long been a winter tradition, it’s changing yet again in 2017. Several years of bad weather in various parts of the country in January have prompted the Long Distance Committee to extend the swim period. At the USMS Annual Meeting in Atlanta this past September, the committee voted to make that extension permanent; going forward, the 1-Hour swim will now span both January and February. Now, there’s simply no excuse—you’ll have two full months to log your swim and participate in this National Championship event.

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge for the first time in 2017, we welcome you to become a part of the long history of the 1-Hour Swim and urge you to enjoy every minute of the hour you swim in January or February. To make that easier, Leilich offered some sage advice for swimming the event in that 1990 Wavemaker article that has withstood the test of time:

“Practice your pace in advance and have a pace clock available the day of your swim. If you just ‘can’t hack’ swimming for one hour straight, then swim 100s, 200s, or another restful distance on a ‘short rest’ interval. Have your verifier (counter) signal when you have completed predetermined distances (e.g., every 500 yards) or time intervals (e.g., every 15 minutes). Stop for a drink if you usually drink during practice. Be sure to wear comfortable, tested goggles—most swimmers start in the water. The event can become as addictive as participation in Masters Swimming itself.”

EDIT: A previous version of this article stated that the 1-Hour swim became a national championship event for USMS in 1986.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Elaine Howley

Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including AARP.orgAtlas ObscuraespnW, and U.S. News & World Report. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she has contributed to SWIMMER magazine since 2009 and USMS.org since 2012. Contact her via her website: elainekhowley.com

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