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by Elaine K Howley

June 14, 2019

Though pool and open water competitions are quite different, swimmers can and do excel in both

More than 320 athletes swam in the serene waters of Lake Berryessa near Sacramento, Calif., on June 1 to participate in an annual 2-mile open water race, this year’s venue for the U.S. Masters Swimming Middle-Distance Open Water National Championship. Newbies and veterans alike churned their way to success, with a number of talented pool swimmers topping the podium in their age groups.

Although she says pool and open water swimming are two different sports, Tamalpais Aquatic Masters member Laura Val is a commanding performer in both venues. The 67-year-old won a national championship in the women’s 6569 age group with her swift 47:58.15 finish, good for 52nd overall. In the pool, her stunning speed has earned her nearly 570 USMS individual records.

Open water is just another way for her to express her love of swimming competition. Val began swimming in open water in 1987 with the Lake Berryessa event, around the same time she got into Masters swimming.

“When I first did it, it was outside of my comfort zone,” recalls Val, who approached open water with some trepidation. “I wasn’t particularly fond of distance swimming; I like the sprints a little better.” But she tried it anyway and stuck with it, adding dozens of accolades to her resume ever since.

That said, she notes, “I feel more confident in the pool. But both are fun in their own way,” with the option of spending the day at the beach a big part of the appeal of open water.

For Richard Burns, 75, also of Tamalpais Aquatic Masters, open water swimming was something he came to later in life.

“I grew up in Chicago and we never swam outside,” he says. “If we trained in the summer, it was pool swimming, and open water swimming never even entered my radar screen.”

But now that he lives in Northern California—where the opportunities to swim in open water are many—taking the plunge seemed if not inevitable, then at least an interesting idea, he says.

Like Val, Burns is a highly-decorated pool swimmer who’s also been competing in open water swims across the region and occasionally farther afield for years. He has set 112 USMS individual records over his Masters swimming career and earned a national championship in the men’s 7579 age group in a time of 57:43.65 (174th overall).

At first, Burns says, racing in open water “seemed overwhelming,” with 2 miles sounding like a very long way to go at top speed. But he soon realized that the mindset in open water is a little different than in the pool. The competition is still fierce—make no mistake about that—but it’s tougher to see directly who you’re competing against in the moment.

“You’d better swim fast because anyone around you could be your competition. But you have no idea how you’ll place relative to anyone else in your age group. In that regard, it’s a different mindset,” he says.

Nevertheless, there’s some space to enjoy the moment in open water, and he says he mixed in some backstroke during the Lake Berryessa event. “Swimming on your back, you can look around and enjoy the scenery,” Burns says.

Val and Burns recommend that making the transition to open water from the pool can be a delightful way to expand your swimming and your success.

Val recommends starting with a shorter event to build confidence and swimming with a friend of a similar speed. For swimmers with little open water experience, she suggests going to an open water clinic ahead of any competition to learn more.

“You can learn how to draft and sight,” Val says. “Get your feet wet, so to speak, so you’re not nervous.”

Burns also encourages other swimmers to realize that most open water events are on par with pool meets in terms of safety, particularly if it’s a championship, as these events must meet stringent safety requirements.

“Don’t be intimidated,” he says. “Try it. You’ll like it.”

Results of the competition can be found here.


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