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When it comes to the use of wetsuits in swimming events, let swimmers decide for themselves

Dorset-based outdoor swimmer Lisa North (pictured above) responds to our article on “The unexpected and unwanted consequences of FINA’s poorly conceived wetsuit ruling” with a plea for event organisers to keep an eye on the history of open water swimming and allow swimmers to make their own decisions about whether or not to use wetsuits.

Thank you for a great article Simon. You raise a lot of valid points that need addressing as the sport of open water swimming moves forward.

My answer to your question “Are event organisers at risk if they allow swimmers to go without a wetsuit in water of less than 18 degrees?” is an emphatic no. We have to apply common sense here and make it clear to participants the dangers of swimming without a wetsuit at certain temperatures along with all the other dangers that are present. Surely that is why event organisers have public liability insurance, provide safety boat cover and have a safety briefing at the beginning of their events? When you know all the dangers then it is an individual’s choice if and how (i.e. with or without a wetsuit) they want to take part. The Dart 10km swim has a good approach where they allow non-wetsuit swimmers but you have to provide evidence that you can cope with the conditions. If you are an experienced open water skins swimmer then this is easy and you can get approval and take part without any bother on either side.

We can also look at other sports and compare what the risks are. The boom in cycling has seen participation in weekend Sportives explode and to me the risks from cycling are far more common than those seen in open water swimming. I watched a programme with celebrities cycling the Etape du Tour and was amazed at how many cyclists were strewn on the roadside from crash injuries but these types of events carry on and are getting bigger and bigger. Look at the boom in people taking part in ironman triathlons. I was at the Nice Ironman 2013 where an English man died from crashing on the downhill cycling section but this has not stopped the event taking place and it is more highly prized than ever. And it seems there is a fatality nearly every year in the London Marathon but still it continues. Not to mention there have been several deaths from the ultimate open water swim of crossing the English Channel and only recently we very sadly saw the latest one but I have not heard any talk of this being stopped as an activity. Precautions are taken beforehand and participants know the risks and this should be the case in every event.

I am not a legal expert but I do work in the health and safety industry and I am intrigued to know why organisers might have such a problem with the risk of hypothermia. There are plenty of other risks out there including cuts and bruises from entering water courses and infectious diseases from biological contaminants to collisions, over exertion, heat stroke or problems with boat traffic. The list can go on and on so why the focus on hypothermia at the moment? I have never had hypothermia, I swim all year round without a wetsuit and have done ice swimming and several channel swims. If I was to get hypothermia then it would be down to me and I wouldn’t blame the organiser of an event. 

Dorney Lake

Skins swimmers waiting until the last possible moment to enter the water at a 2013 event in Dorney Lake

Having said that, this might be different if an organiser did something to affect me getting hypothermia. For example, at an event I took part in this summer we were requested to hand our bags in something like an hour before the swim start. This wasn’t a problem for the wetsuited swimmers but those of us without were sitting around in the open air in our togs for ages. Luckily, it  was a lovely sunny day and standing around for the race briefing in skins was ok but it could have had a negative effect on some people who are not so well covered as myself.

For organisers who want minimum hassle, I can see why they do not want to cater for the minority who want to expose themselves to the elements and experience swimming in its purist form. But surely this is missing the point and I think it would be a great shame if non-wetsuit swimming was phased out just because a bunch of powerful people are running scared. Non-wetsuit swimming was the norm until triathlon started getting popular over the last 25 years. Now we see more and more swimming events with loads of people taking part and money flooding in. This surely is great for the sport but not if it means that non-wetsuit swimming becomes the fall guy. Captain Matthew Webb is part of our history and what makes us proud to be swimmers. Let’s be brave and address the real issues rather than get scared and ban things for fear of a legal reprisal.

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