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February 20, 2013

Changes in the sanction process and how they affect swimmers

Over the past decade, U.S. Masters Swimming has seen an increase in the number of open water events. In 2012, USMS sanctioned more than 150 open water events. This is great news, as encouraging adults to swim—whether in the pool or open water—is one of the main purposes of USMS.

Open water presents unique circumstances not found in pool swimming. There are considerations such as water temperature, weather conditions, sea life, the presence of motorized boats, and the inability to stop and rest. These circumstances call for a standardized sanctioning process to help event directors plan to make open water as safe as possible—USMS wants its members to continue to enjoy open water swimming now and in the future.

With that goal in mind, the USMS Board of Directors appointed an Open Water Sanction Task Force to recommend new guidelines for sanctioning open water events. The task force, which consisted of staff, volunteer leaders, and open water experts, proposed the Open Water Sanction Guidelines that have been adopted by the BOD. President Nadine Day recently penned a memo to our volunteer leadership outlining these changes.

A new insurance surcharge has also been instituted to help cover the rising cost of the liability insurance USMS provides to all sanctioned open water events.

Both the sanctions guidelines and insurance surcharge apply immediately to all open water events, including those planned for 2013.

What are the changes?

So what does all this mean for you, the swimmer? We want you to enter open water events with the confidence that your safety is our primary concern. To that end, these changes are now in effect:

Motorized boats

Depending on course set-up and length, event directors may desire to have motorized boats in support of their events. The following new safety regulations now apply:

Propeller guards sufficient to protect swimmers from propeller strikes will now be required on all motorized boats. Exceptions to this are: Coast Guard, police, fire, rescue, or other government agency boats; as well as boats at anchor with their engines off, and boats that have inboard motors and that stay off the swim course.

If a boat with an inboard motor is serving as a personal escort boat, it may be on the swim course, provided its engines are off when any swimmer is within 20 feet of the propeller and during relay exchanges. For feedings, the swimmer may approach within 5 feet of the bow or side of boat while the engine is engaged.

Certificates of insurance

USMS now requires certificates of insurance from hired boat operators and proof of insurance from volunteer boat operators. It is the event hosts’ responsibility to ensure that these documents are on file prior to the start of the event.

New insurance surcharge

As with other sports, we’re experiencing a huge increase in our insurance premiums, primarily related to open water swimming. For 2013, our insurance company is charging USMS $1,800 for each sanctioned open water event. USMS will subsidize $800 of that amount. The LMSC that sanctions the event will pay the additional $1,000 for each open water sanction that it issues.

The LMSC can determine how much of the insurance surcharge it will pass on to the event host. USMS has a long tradition of allowing the LMSCs to make these kinds of decisions themselves. We are confident that LMSCs will make decisions that work best for the events they sanction.

Should the LMSC decide to pass some of this cost on to race directors, you, the swimmer, could see an increase in the entry fees you pay to participate in open water events.

New (and improved) sanction process

In 2011, USMS made a significant investment to develop an online sanction program. This new online program ensures that all event information is captured in one location while providing the benefit of feeding into the Calendar of Events.

A second layer of review is now being added to the open water sanction process. An Open Water Compliance Coordinator is now responsible for reviewing all open water sanction requests and helping to ensure open water events are in compliance with the new guidelines. The USMS president, executive director, and LMSCs have the authority to deny or revoke an open water sanction for failure to comply with any safety or administrative procedure.

In addition, all requests for open water sanctions must be processed through the online sanction database. A link to the sanction system (Sanction an Event) can be found under the Events and Results tab at Tutorials on using the system may be viewed in the USMS Guide to Operations—Sanctions on the website.

Most commonly asked questions

As these new guidelines go into effect, we’ve been gathering the most frequently asked questions and posting them at We want you, the swimmer, to understand how these new guidelines will affect you. Executive Director Rob Butcher provides answers to some of these questions here and in the linked FAQ.

I'm a pool swimmer, how will this affect me?

The new open water sanction guidelines and insurance fees will have no effect on USMS pool swimmers.

I swim in open water events; will I now have to pay more to enter them?

It’s possible that you’ll notice an increase in entry fees to your favorite open water events. USMS’s insurance company is now charging $1,800 per sanction, and USMS has committed to absorbing $800 of that, with the LMSCs being billed for the $1,000 balance. LMSCs may choose to pass on some of that cost to event directors and swimmers, or they may decide to absorb that cost—it’s up to each LMSC to decide what works best in that LMSC.

In five years, will USMS still be sanctioning open water events?

Our purpose is to encourage adults to swim. We recognize that many of our members have an interest in open water and that they have an expectation of participating in a safe and fun environment. USMS is committed to providing open water programs and working with open water event hosts who can meet these expectations and will adhere to our standards.

Is USMS still going to offer long distance open water events (i.e. more than a 5K)?

Some of the safest open water events may be the longer ones. They have fewer participants and more focus on individual swimmers with, for example, kayak escorts. Our goal is to implement these new guidelines with our open water event partners and others in the future to provide a safe environment for all open water swims, whether they are short or long distance.

What about multiple open water events on one day or weekend?

The event partner only needs to apply for one sanction and the LMSC will be billed the appropriate insurance fee for the sanction.

Will the Open Water National Championships be treated differently?

There will be no insurance surcharge for the 2013 Open Water National Championships, but if there are companion open water swims held the same weekend or in conjunction with the National Championship race, the sanction will be subject to the insurance surcharge to cover the additional swims. However, there is no exemption for safety; all watercraft must comply with the propeller guard and insurance standards.

Can we expect more guidelines to be enacted?

It is our intent to work with event partners to create as safe an environment as reasonably possible, so we will continue to review and study open water swimming and implement changes that meet this objective. For example, in 2010 our Swimming Saves Lives Foundation funded the purchase and installation of an Endless Pool at the IU Councilman Center for Swimming. The purpose is for the Center to study, in a controlled environment, swimmer response to water and air temperature. The research from this project is very likely to have an impact on water and air temperature guidelines for USMS.

What is the exposure of the volunteers who support the open water events?

USMS volunteers have always have been covered under the USMS insurance program. These new standards continue that practice.

Do open water clinics and practices need to be sanctioned?

Clinics and practices do not need to be sanctioned. They are covered as a USMS activity for insurance purposes so long as all the participants are USMS members and insurance guidelines are followed.

Who has to pay the $1,000 insurance surcharge?

The $1,000 insurance surcharge is billed to the LMSC, not to the event or participants. The LMSC leadership has the freedom to charge the event hosts, all, something, or nothing. Some LMSCs may choose a per-swimmer fee, a revenue split, or any other method that works for them.

How is USMS going to cover its $800 part of the fee?

We are absorbing it out of our reserves.

Will USMS have to sacrifice any programs to pay any of the new insurance cost?

There will be no sacrifice of programs or services to our members or programs that we had budgeted for in 2013.

What about solo swims, done as either an individual or a relay, which are not part of an organized event?

LMSCs will be charged the full $1,800 insurance surcharge for each solo swim (individual or relay) that it sanctions. USMS will not cover any portion of these swims.

Will the new procedures be revisited at the end of the year?

The insurance surcharge is only for 2013. We will review once we know our 2014 insurance premiums and make changes accordingly.

What if an open water event host does not want to apply for a USMS sanction—can that host get insurance coverage independently?

The event host can certainly try, however it may be difficult to find comparable insurance coverage at a reasonable cost. USMS insurance is very comprehensive. Event directors should make sure they are comparing apples to apples when looking at different insurance policies, and specifically make sure any policy has watercraft coverage. Also—to be clear—if an event is not sanctioned by USMS, it should not be advertised or represented to be a USMS event.


If you’ve read this article and still have unanswered questions, please contact us. We want everyone affected—swimmers, event directors, sanctions chairs, and LMSCs—to understand the new Open Water Sanction Guidelines and insurance surcharge. Your feedback is appreciated and encouraged.

Please direct any questions or feedback to

Important links:


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  • About USMS


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