As a child swimming with a club, a good swimmer was a fast swimmer and a fast swimmer was a good swimmer. The words “fast” and “good” were interchangeable for most practical purposes.
Years later, as a masters swimmer and outdoor swimming enthusiast, I still frequently hear “good” used as a synonym for “fast”. The other day I overheard someone at the pool say: “I’m not good enough to swim in the fast lane.” I wanted to tell them that they should have said they’re not fast enough but that speed is only one aspect of swimming, and not necessarily a condition for been a good swimmer.
It’s time to broaden our definition of what makes a “good” swimmer to one that anyone can aspire to and work towards, without having to develop the ability to move through the water quickly, especially when we’re talking about swimming outdoors.
I’m currently crunching the data from Outdoor Swimmer’s recent Attitudes to Outdoor Swimming survey and preparing to write our Trends in Outdoor Swimming report, which will be based on the survey’s findings. In one of the survey sections, we asked about the importance of various factors and what motivates people to swim outdoors.
Out of more than 4500 responses, not one person said they swim outdoors in order to become a faster swimmer. Less than one third said that races were an important or very important reason to swim outside. In contrast, 91% said fun and 94% said health and wellbeing were important or very important reasons to swim outside. Overall, the most important reason for swimming outdoors was for the general sense of wellbeing it offers.
It seems to me that we should align our definition of what makes a “good” swimmer with what outdoor swimmers define as important. Based on what swimmers told us, a good swimmer could therefore be someone who can access the wellbeing benefits of outdoor swimming and can help other people access them, for example.
Second, a big difference between pool and wild swimming is the massive variability in outdoor conditions and the increased risk of swimming in nature. A key part of being an outdoor swimmer is developing an understanding of the risks and hazards and learning how to stay safe. A good swimmer is someone who pays attention to their surroundings, has accumulated enough experience to understand any dangers, and swims in a safe and responsible manner.
Third, a good swimmer is someone who can cope with outdoor swimming conditions, whether it’s temperature or rough water. I know of fast swimmers who really struggle with rough water, and plenty of people like me who fare badly in cooler conditions.
In your development as a swimmer, instead of worry about speed, I suggest measuring your abilities against a wide range of attributes. For fun, I’ve scored myself out of 10* on each of them (my scores in brackets). How do you do?
Take the test
- How good is your overall understanding of risks and hazards in outdoor swimming? (9)
- How much experience do you have of swimming in a wide range of water types and conditions? (8)
- How well can you cope with swimming in challenging conditions? (7)
- How confident are you at getting into cold water and managing cold water shock? (7)
- How comfortable are you swimming for an extended period in cool water? (3)
- How well can you access the social, fun and wellbeing aspects of swimming outdoors? (8)
- How far can you swim (assuming you don’t get too cold)? (6)
- How fast can you sprint? (7)
- How fast is your sustainable swim pace? (7)
- How much do you encourage and support other swimmers? (9)
- How much cake do you bake for your fellow swimmers? (0)
Overall, I’ve scored myself 71 out of 110 so definitely room for improvement. In defence of my big fat zero on the cake baking front, I have friends who do such a fantastic job that I’ve never felt the need to contribute.
*Please note, this test is for fun, and scores are subjective.