Open Water Event Prep - It Doesn't Just Happen Overnight

By Matt Wilson // USA Swimming Open Water Official


The event is over. It has gone well, as you would have expected. But it wasn’t that easy, not by a long shot! Let’s back up just a bit, or maybe a little more than a bit…


Preparation is the key.


For anyone that runs swimming events, you know that they don’t just materialize from the mist. There is a considerable amount of planning, time and effort that goes into any meet. However, for an open water event, the preparation time is typically much longer than a pool event would be. Many inaugural open water events start planning six months or more in advance of the event, and established events often put their plans together almost immediately after that year’s event concludes. Some of the biggest reasons for beginning this process so far prior to the event include securing the venue and coordinating water craft, lifeguards, and medical personnel. All of this information becomes part of the Safety Plan, which, while always important, has become even more so in the wake of Fran Crippen’s passing in 2010.


The Safety Plan is the most important part of the total Open Water Meet Application. Unlike most Meet Announcements, an Open Water event cannot be sanctioned by the LSC without approval of the Safety Plan by USA Swimming. Some of the things that need to be considered when putting the Safety Plan together include:


  • Venue needs: Will the athletes be swimming in a lake? River? Ocean? Pool? Is the competition course closed (not accessible by boat) or open? If it’s open, who will be assisting in keeping unauthorized craft off of the course?
  • Pre-Race/Technical Meeting: When and where will it be held? What will be covered? Are there any special topics that need to be addressed?
  • Race Day Conditions: What are the expected weather conditions at the venue on the day of the event? Remember, an Open Water event cannot be started if the water is colder than 60.8° F (16° C), and if you’re doing a 5K or longer, the water cannot be warmer than 85° F (29.45° C). And what is the air temperature expected to be? If the combined air and water temperature is less than 118° F (30° C) or greater than 177.4° F (63° C), then you won’t be able to do your event even though your water temperature is acceptable! 
  • Medical Personnel and Care: Will you have a doctor on site? How many lifeguards/first responders will you have on the course? Will they be moving, or stationary? Is this number scalable based on the number of athletes that will be on the course? Will there be an ambulance on site, and if not, what is their response time to the venue?


As officials at swim events, we are told to be flexible, and to be able to react to audibles as they occur. For open water events, flexibility is paramount! What happens if you have weather issues? What happens if unexpected marine life is encountered on the course? What if you have to abandon the event before it is completed? Unfortunately, you often have to plan for the worst, and hope for the best. If you plan for any possible issues that may arise, then you will be able to also plan for contingencies so that going with the flow is a much easier process.


Ultimately, athlete safety is the most important responsibility that meet organizers and officials have to deal with at open water events. By proactively planning well in advance, you will give your event the best opportunity to succeed!

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