Most of us have been there, and for most of us it was when we were kids. Poised on a creaky lakeside dock looking out across the cool blue water and either laying down the challenge or taking it up: “Bet you I can make it to that island.” That childhood open water swim, free of the pool’s chlorine and lifeguard’s rules about bellyflops, and the drudgery of laps, that summery swim, most of us leave it behind when we run out of the years where we’re granted a summer vacation.
But something is changing. Open water swimming is becoming one of the fastest growing watersports of the last decade. Josh Reid, organizer of the North Shore Challenge on Lake Erie, is part of that change. He says a lot of open water swimmers come from triathalon, but he also credits the rise in popularity to the fact that more people are staying active longer in life. “I’ve seen everyone from 10 year-olds to people in their 60s, 70s, and even 90s competing.” Easy on the joints and the pocket book, if you’re far enough south all you need is a swim suit and goggles.
Not that these races are genteel affairs. Races typically start with a mass, not to say mad, rush into the water where the closely packed swimmers are referred to as “pods.” Flailing limbs and jockeying for position have produced many a black eye, bruises and sore ribs.
Around the world open water distance swimming ranges from river to ocean. Each location, unlike a swimming pool, having its own challenges. Rivers have currents, lakes that are too cold can lead to vertigo and vomiting, oceans host any number of co-habitants from jellyfish to sharks.
If you want to reconnect with your former self, the one who dove off that summer dock, Reid says their are a couple keys to going long over deep water. “Go faster or go fatter.” Pace is important when you’re doing distance but the greats are the ones who can retain body heat. That extra layer is counterintuitive to the other two parts of a triathlon, the cycling and running, but that’s also why open water swimming is growing in its own right. If you’re not built to run far you might be the perfect body type to swim farther.
Races range from the 750 meter sprint up to the 10km marathon distance. And that 10k is what premiered at the Beijing Olympics. But despite the sport's recent growth at the club level and acceptance by the Olympics, open water distance swimming is nothing new. Especially in Toronto where races along the lake in the 1930s drew crowds in their tens of thousands to cheer on local favourites for purses that today would equal hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Huge crowds, big paycheques, ticker tape parades down Bay Street for the winners. Who knew? That history was there, but like a ship that went under, it was forgotten over the years.
“We turned our back on the lake,” says Steve Hulford, co-founder of the Toronto Island Lake Swim. Hulford and his partner Bill Pool cofounded the 2.2 km race now heading into its third year.
When Hulford and Pool came up with the idea for the race they scouted out the swim on the south shore of Toronto Islands. Posting their exploratory swim on Facebook they were surprised at how many people wrote back to ask if their time in the lake had turned them green, or asking what it was like to swim in a garbage dump.
“We’ve just been told for years the lake is dirty, don’t swim in it, but it is probably the cleanest its been in generations. Obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done and problems with plastics and pollution, but we can actually swim there.” Hulford sees the race not just as a great opportunity to challenge yourself but also as a chance to educate the public about what’s going on in their own lake.