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Drafting Etiquette for Open Water Swimming

2016/7/21 10:44:24

"It is unfair. It is frustrating. It is cheating." So goes the thought process of some open water swimmers and triathletes.

"It is classic tactics. It is strategic. It is all part of the sport." So goes the completely reverse thought process of other athletes.

Which is correct? Is open water drafting cheating or is it strategic? Is it unfair or is it part of the sport?

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Is Drafting OK?

Neither side of the argument will ever convince the other side of their viewpoint of drafting. It is a debate without conclusion, but the question remains: in a draft-legal open water swimming competition or triathlon, is it good or bad etiquette to draft off another person for all, for a majority or any part of a race? Is it acceptable to draft and then swing around and try to beat your opponents at the end of the race or to the T1 transition?

At the highest end of the open water swimming, professional marathon races and triathlon communities, drafting, pacing and positioning are well-accepted and understood strategies of competitive athletes. But what about at local open water swims among amateurs and masters athletes with no illusions of earning a podium position?

Even at that level, drafting is largely seen as a fair part of the sport. But there also is an unspoken and unwritten etiquette that is part of the sport.

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The Unwritten Rules

Fundamentally and specifically, impeding by occasional hitting or pulling on a lead swimmer is flat-out unfair. Continuous and intentional tapping on the feet of a lead swimmer is uncool. This is true whether or not there are officials in the water overseeing the race.

Most athletes believe that impeding another swimmer's progress is an act of unsportsmanlike behavior at any level whether at the professional or amateur level. But some excuse themselves if the act of impeding is unintentional. Whether intentional or not, impeding others feels wrong among amateurs who simply want to participate for fitness and a sense of accomplishment.

But among professional swimmers and competitive elite triathletes of all ages, drafting in the water is an acquired and respected skill. Among these swimmers, there is a healthy respect for those who draft and position well and then are able to sprint to victory.

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Among professional open water swimmers, tapping on an opponent's feet and trying to "get inside the head" of one's competitors while drafting is also a tactic that some athletes employ. But drafting without physicality is what the very best do extraordinarily well, from USC Olympian Haley Anderson to Harvard Olympian Alex Meyer.

While some athletes are renowned for leading races from the front, most pros and amateurs prefer to draft strategically and make their moves during the late stages of races. They know that they can effectively conserve their energy through smart drafting, positioning and pacing that allows them to move into the lead or near the leader with 5 to 10 percent of the race left.

While some individuals might think this strategy is unfair, ANY and ALL swimmers have the opportunity to draft in a competitive environment. But for individuals who simply want to enjoy a race and the camaraderie of open water swimming while swimming from Point A to Point B, drafting behind or alongside and then "sprinting" ahead "to win" can be viewed as poor etiquette. Certainly, tapping on the feet and constantly bumping into lead swimmer is commonly seen as an example of competing in poor taste.

As a countermeasure in cases where you are being bothered by someone behind you, you can swim laterally—even for a few meters or strokes—and the problem will often resolve itself. Alternatively—and this has occurred at the professional and competitive levels—the lead swimmer can also simply stop or do some easy backstroke or breaststroke until the trailing swimmer has passed and the roles have been reversed.

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