What should you know about open water swimming before the Paris Olympics begin?

Igrzyska Olimpijskie

The Paris Olympics are coming up, and so is the 10km open water race. It’s not a popular sport in Poland, so it’s worth looking into some aspects of this competition, if only to better understand what will actually happen and what challenges the athletes will face. So let’s take a look behind the scenes!

Open water swimming an Olympic competition – historical overview

Open water swimming has been a discipline present at the Olympics since the beginning of their modern history. In Athens in 1896. swam exclusively in the sea. The longest distance was 1200 meters, and the winner was Hungarian swimmer Alréd Hajós, with a time of 18 min and 22 sec. The Hungarian also won earlier in the 100m. Women were not allowed to compete. At the time, the water temperature was 13-14°C, which is important for swimming, especially over a longer distance. At the next Games, in Paris (1900), they swam in the Seine River. These included an obstacle race and underwater swimming. Currently, these arch-rivals do not have Olympic status.

The endurance test was a 4 km race. The water was again 13-14°C, so it was quite a thermal challenge for the competitors, given that they swam much slower than contemporaries. The winner was Britain’s John Arthur Jarvis, swimming downstream for 58 min and 24 sec. Four years later, an artificial lake was built in Saint Louis, where swimming competitions were held, but the longest distance was shortened to 1 English mile(1600 m). In 18°C water, Emil Rausch won with a time of 27 min and 18 sec.

After the Games in America, there was a turnaround in the history of Olympic swimming and all disciplines moved to newly built swimming pools. This situation lasted until 2008, when it was decided to return to the long distance (10 km) in open water. This took place in Beijing. The story raises some thoughts. Swimming in artificially created facilities is a beautiful sport, and for many an art in which we can admire the speed and varied swimming technique. We can control the conditions of the competition, so the results are comparable.

The qualities of such swimming can be highlighted with the help of modern image transmission technology. However, since the birth of Mediterranean culture, of which the Olympic Games are an emanation, swimming has been done in open water. An excellent description of covering a long distance by swimming is found in Homer’ s Odyssey, in which the hero crosses from the island of Ogygia to Scheria (perhaps Corfu). Nowadays, long-distance swimming is commonly referred to as the marathon, but it is worth remembering that when the battle of Marathon was fought, the tale of the long-distance swimmer had been known for at least four centuries. I would like to emphasize that open-water swimming is a sport of sources, a solitary and romantic sport that involves great endurance, technical excellence and courage. I would venture to say that swimming 10 km is more demanding than running a marathon.

In the period 1904-2008, long-distance swimming developed. The FINA World Championships(now Word Aquqtics) were held over a grueling 25 km, and the FINA Grand Prix series even raced over a distance of 88 km, down the Parana River in Argentina. But certainly the return of open water swimming to the Olympic program, represents the greatest promotion of the sport. It should be remembered that even today millions of people do not have access to swimming pools, and the lack of swimming skills is a common phenomenon.

List of winners of Olympic 10 km races

  • Tokyo 2020
    • Florian Wellbrock (Germany) 1:48:33.7
    • Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil) 1:59:31.7
  • Rio de Janeiro 2016
    • Ferry Weertman (Netherlands) 1:52:59.8
    • Sharon van Rouvendaal (Netherlands) 1:56:32.1
  • London 2012
    • Oussama Mellouli (Tunisia) 1:49:55.1
    • Eva Risztov (Hungary) 1:57:38.6
  • Beijing 2008
    • Maarten van der Weijden (Netherlands) 1:51:51.6
    • Larisa Ilchenko (Russia) 1:59:27.7

Olympic Games in Paris – race route

In France, the 10-km swimming competition is scheduled to be held again on the Seine. Competitors will have a loop of 1.66 km (6 full laps) to cover. The start and finish are scheduled at the Alexander III Bridge. For various reasons, the organizers reserve the right to change the venue of the competition. There may be drought, flooding or the water may be too polluted. If the route remains unchanged, competitors will swim around a rectangle bounded by large inflatable buoys. There will also be an area where the person accompanying the competitor will be able to administer a drinking bottle using a long pole.

Costume and water temperature

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about swimming outfits that would be most in line with the spirit of fair play competition. Prior to 2010. polyurethane outfits were approved for use, which significantly improved the performance of individual athletes. Since then, it has been established that swimwear should be made of woven materials and must not contain elements that improve buoyancy. After the 2017 regulatory adjustment. A man may use an ankle-length outfit in open water, but not covering the neck and shoulders, or he may use a less built-up outfit, such as pants up to navel height, but always a one-piece.

Also, a woman’s costume must not cover the neck and shoulders, the leg can reach the ankles. The outfit can consist of two parts. Costumes that cover the body to a greater extent improve the hydrodynamic properties of the athletes, proprioception and the tension in the trunk muscles, which is very important for fast swimming. Another regulation says that the outfit should not offend morals. These matters I would like to leave to the imagination of the reader, but I must add that some swimmers at long distances chose outfits that do not cover their breasts for reasons of comfort. Such costumes have not been approved by the World Aquatics commission for use since 2024.

The above rules apply if the water is between 18 and 31°C. If the water is between 16 and 18°C, the athlete is required to use a foam suit that also covers the shoulders. With a temperature range of 18 to 20°C, swimmers have a choice. At water temperatures below 16°C and above 31°C, competitions are not held. It is permissible to use two caps at the same time. Usually inserting the second one makes sure that neither they nor the glasses slip off the head. Instead, it is forbidden to carry any electronic device that could provide pace, time or aid navigation. Also, a second or coach should not inform the time and set the pace. This makes all tactics depend on the athlete himself and his experience of swimming in changing conditions.

Swimming technique and training

Nowadays, most of the athletes competing in championship events train at swimming pools due to easier control of the training process. For dabbling in the more unpredictable open waters, there are training camps and competition starts themselves. The technique of long-distance swimming, which is actually long-distance kraul, is different from the sprint or even medium-distance kraul that we know from the swimming pool. Sprinters usually use the kayak technique, that is, they work hard with the driving hand while the other is on the opposite side. For a long distance, the hand in front waits until the back hand makes a sweep over the water and only then propels the athlete’s body. This causes the float to glide along the surface of the water and spend energy more economically.

A sprinter, if he has a lot of strength, can propel himself underwater with an almost straight upper limb, using a long lever. A long-distance swimmer usually bends it tighter at the elbow to make the movement more economical, but must always be ready to change the rhythm of the swim due to currents and wind. Footwork for a short distance can be very intense, in open water it usually remains small and economical. Only at the end of the distance, at the finish, it launches more strongly. Competitors compete in a group, so this type of swimming becomes a contact sport, and accidental strokes can even eliminate a swimmer from the competition.

Dangerous situations also occur when passing buoys. Swimmers need to master the technique of navigation, that is, looking forward quickly and economically from time to time. This is of great importance during the race. The athlete, moreover, must learn to take drinks effectively while swimming on his back. The next issue is the ability to swim in the legs of another swimmer. Kilwater of one helps the other. This brings the race in the water closer to a cycling competition. If there is a current in the river, under standard conditions, the athlete learns to choose a route closer to the shore, swimming against the current, and closer to the middle of the body of water, swimming with the current. That’s where the water flows fastest. Individual bodies of water have their own rules and swimmers must make decisions on the fly.

This is just an outline of the problems faced by a marathon swimmer. Technique and tactics are very individual matters, and the behavior of individual swimmers may deviate from the above pattern.


Not every swimmer is able to compete in open water. Fear of the sea and river is felt by many champions competing in swimming. The strip at the bottom of the pool basin and the tiles give a sense of security that is not there when you throw yourself into the waves. Federica Pellegrini said in an interview that she was unable to swim while on a seaside beach, and Michael Phelps hired an understudy for a commercial in which he was to swim toward the Statue of Liberty, as he writes in his autobiography. Long-distance swimming is measuring yourself against long, lonely hours in the water, where stimuli from the outside world have much less impact than in land-based disciplines.

The swimmer is even subject to hallucinations and must develop some kind of meditation to survive the hardships of training. Open water swimming is a spiritual exercise. Florian Wellbrock, currently the brightest star of open water, says that it is necessary, above all, to ensure a variety of training, to start also at shorter distances and to change the environment. The swimmer likes to hum a song (German rap) during the race, and swimming marathons interests him precisely because of the unpredictability of the conditions. This pulls the pressure he felt when competing in indoor facilities.

Poland currently has one representative in the Olympic 10 km race. It is junior European champion Piotr Wozniak, who trains daily in Kormoran Olsztyn. To Peter, on behalf of the editorial team, I would like to wish him Olympic laurels. We are all aware that already jumping from the pier into the Seine, he will become a champion and an inspiration for domestic swimmers!

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