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by Kelsey Deery

April 5, 2011

Foreboding clouds draped the edges of the San Francisco Bay and intermittent pelts of rain patterned the inky water. The wind had a biting chill, and after a quick finger test of the equally chilling water, I was jubilant I would be a part of open water discussions today and not doing actual open water swimming. Inside the Marriott adjacent to the San Francisco airport, participants of the conference, coffees in hand, were greeted with a compelling address by legendary open water marathon swimmer, Shelly Taylor-Smith. Instantly, any clouds that may have made their way into the room quickly dissipated and we were energized for a big day of discussion; sharing and learning the finer points of safety in open water events and how to better protect our athletes.

I must admit before I get to far into this account, that I have been strictly a pool swimmer for 80% of my fairly short life. So, this account is coming from someone fairly green, albeit my interest and experience in ocean lifesaving, open water competition, and race coordination. This was an important thing for me to remember, as I sat amongst a good number of the leaders, experts, officials, and enthusiasts in the sport of open water swimming. The collective experience in that room ran deep, but no time for feeling intimidated or under-qualified, it was time to listen and learn.

We all shared the day revisiting the inherent risks and dangers of open water swimming by a diverse group of presenters and panelists. B. Chris Brewster, of the U.S. Lifesaving association, was able to give an impartial rundown of the standards that all race directors should strive for when it comes to open water. Jim Wheeler, Eric Juneau, Ralph Goto and many others shared actual instances of emergency situations, from weather misfortune to athlete health and wellness. Dr. Jim Miller, a renowned open water swim physician, led sessions on hypo- and hyperthermia, a seriousness that was capped off with a impelling speech by Maddy Crippen, a celebration of her late brother, Fran Crippen’s life and her efforts to make safety a priority in all open water events.

The information and shared experience was, frankly, abundant. Under the skilled and impassioned leadership of open water guru Steve Munatones, sessions spilled into overtime, leaving all of us begging for more. Were we all looking for more clarity and exact requirements that might help us achieve the safest possible experience for our athletes? Maybe. It is clear to me that none of the attendees would ever be cavalier when it came to safety, but I think many were brought to remember that anything could happen. Bottom line, it is time for all of us to step up the effort in securing our athletes. We all know that. So, how do we do this? There were so many great ideas generated and shared at this event. Having a designated sanctioning body for all US-based open water events, educating race directors as well as everyone involved in the race (including athletes) of the seriousness of risks, having a dialed-in crisis management plan, understanding the unpredictability of such a dynamic force like nature and the human body. The list is longer than these few points, but manageable and something we should all strive to address. The intention made by Rob Butcher, Executive Director of USMS, to continue this conference yearly, is a promising step for many great things to come.

For me, a newbie member of this ultra-passionate group, I left feeling energized for the future of this sport. There were many great ideas and plans kicked around the walls of the Marriott. I truly believe that even the most knowledgeable open water expert left the weekend with something to stew. Everyone else left with handfuls of contacts, lots of notes, a brain-full of things to accomplish, and a new resolve to make their athletes the absolute safest they can be.