Taking responsibility for safety

In recent weeks I have been watching the Six Nations on TV. For the uninitiated, that’s a rugby union tournament. And for anyone still none the wiser, rugby is basically 80 minutes of legalised high-speed car crashes. Without the cars. It’s an exciting but often brutal contact sport played by huge, muscular but highly athletic players. Tackles are fearsome and frequent.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Kelly Brown who was then the Scottish captain. Six foot seven of repressed power. Awesome on the field, surprisingly mild-mannered off it. The previous day he had been taken from the field after a tackle from the English player Matt Bannerman (whom he described as an animal which probably given the size of Mr Brown, gives you some idea of how big and fast Bannerman was!). Brown was telling me how he was forced off for an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) so that the doctors could judge whether he was suffering from concussion. He had been convinced he was fine and apparently was quite vocal about the point on the pitch. Unfortunately, he said, one of the effects of concussion is an increase in aggressive behaviour so, the more he insisted he was fine, the more the doctors insisted that he wasn’t. So off he went. In the end, he got the all-clear and returned to complete the match.

HIA’s are now part and parcel of the modern rugby game and have been introduced as a compulsory safety measure solely for the protection of the players. The decision to make an HIA is always made by an independent medical professional.

All very interesting and important, but how, I hear you ask, does this relate to swimming?

Swimming isn’t a contact sport. Head injuries are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, many swimmers damage their bodies through the sport. Maybe not in a one-off incident such as the tackle on Kelly Brown, but more likely through persistently and consistently moving the body in a way in which it was not designed to do. Over time, this may range from an annoying little niggle to something far more serious, and debilitating.

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What then, is done to protect the swimmer and keep them safe? Safety in rugby isn’t limited just to HIA’s. If, for example, a player lifts an opponent off the ground during a tackle, it is their responsibility to return them to the soil safely rather than simply dropping them or falling on them. Failure to do so can result in the tackler being sent off. Safety is enshrined in the rules of the game.

Is the same true for freestyle swimming? Do regulations exist to keep swimmers safe? (And by “safe” I don’t mean safe from drowning but safe from developing injuries).

The simple answer seems to be “no”.

In all fairness I guess there’s a clue in the name, however, freestyle rules seem to be fairly thin on the ground. It seems that more or less anything goes. Rules are defined by the Federation Internationale De Natation and the basic overview is somewhat sparse. Freestyle is simply defined as any stroke other than backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke and it says that swimmers must touch the wall at the end of the pool when turning and that their head must break the surface no more than15m after a turn but that’s about it. A little more delving finds that swimmers must start the race in a forward direction (!) and can’t use the lane ropes to propel themselves forward nor can they push off from the bottom of the pool. Bizarrely it appears completely legal in a race to stop and stand up for a little rest (providing one stays still and doesn’t begin to walk down the lane).

But you’ll notice there is nothing in there to prevent the swimmer from employing a swimming method that might actually end up harming them. That responsibility is left entirely up to the individual.

Which is a worry, because most people have very little idea which movements are likely to be harmful and which aren’t. Habits are often instilled at an early age when they are first taught to swim and not everyone takes the opportunity to review them later. The problem here is that children are often first encouraged to swim by their parents (or forced to do it as part of a school swimming lesson). And a significant proportion of parents have no more idea about how to ensure the body is moving safely than their pupils. They will judge themselves as a success if they get their little ones t from point A to point B without sinking to the bottom of the pool. Less attention is paid to exactly how this is done with the assumption being made that the finer details will work themselves out over time. There’s no guarantee or reason why this should be so.

School teachers may have a better idea of the rights and wrongs but realistically they can be faced with an entire class of snotty spotty adolescents to motivate and keep in order. Individual care and assessment may well not be a practical option.

All this means is that the role of the swim coach becomes crucial; they must be knowledgeable about the potential dangers of injury and the ways these can be avoided. And that they can communicate this in an easy to understand format. And this can mean they require the ability to be flexible in their teaching approach and strong-willed enough to stay on a particular aspect of the stroke, perhaps approaching the mastery of that skill from multiple directions, before moving on. Proficiency in the basics of the stroke is crucial to long-term success and swimmer safety. Speed and endurance training may have to wait until the fundamentals of the stroke are mastered and that may require not only patience from the swimmer but also expertise on behalf of the coach.

For some sports, such as rugby, the responsibility for safety becomes part and parcel of the game; if the players abide by the rules then they are going a long way to avoiding injury. For many non-contact sports though those taking part must be aware that, to a large part, they are responsible for themselves. They need to do all they can to ensure that they have been taught with the most appropriate techniques available.

A Question (of life and death)

Let me ask you a question.

You’re swimming in the river with friends. You know the area well; it’s a regular meeting place for you. This week, some way off a group of youngsters is larking about jumping and diving off the jetty. They are shouting and laughing, generally having a great time. Suddenly you notice one of their group is lying face down in the water motionless. His friends seem quite oblivious to this or at least completely unconcerned. He is too far away to see exactly what is going on. Is he just taking a breather and having a few minutes quiet, observing life below the surface? Or is there a real problem emerging and he is in fact in serious trouble?

The question, then, is a simple one. What should you do?

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Should you swim to him as fast as possible and check him out? Turn him over face up at the very least? If you do though you’re going to look pretty silly if he is, in fact, perfectly fine. You risk being extremely embarrassed. Worse, he might be of an age where it is highly inappropriate to go manhandling a young boy. There might be all sorts of nasty repercussions.

But what if your worst fears about him are correct? How would you feel if you witnessed a tragedy unfold before your eyes and you had done nothing to try and prevent it?

What should you do?

I’m afraid I don’t know the answer for sure. There are too many variables to take into account. But I suggest that, were you in that situation, you should know the answer. The group was being very boisterous so you definitely noticed them. You could have easily anticipated that, should one of the party get into difficulties, their friends may not immediately notice. And if you anticipated that, it’s not unreasonable to have at least some sort of loose plan

I think we can agree that your response should be primarily driven by the need for the safety of the swimmer, not by the level of embarrassment you might suffer if you get it wrong (although it’s worth recognising that may well be a mental barrier you have to set aside and set it aside immediately. Humans love being in water by and large but we’re also not supposed to be there really. It’s dangerous stuff and serious situations can unfold extremely rapidly.

So you’ve decided to act. But what to do? Can you attract the attention of the boys’ friends? And if you can, can you make yourself understood? Are you the right person to swim over and effect a rescue or is there someone nearer, maybe one of your own party?. If you were to get to him, do you have the skills to save him anyway? Now is probably not the time to regret never having taken that lifesaving course.

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Perhaps you are best to get out of the water and run along the bank; maybe that’s quicker. You might also get to a lifesaving ring that way. But how do you get out of the water? Or should you wait a second or two and assess the situation further – make sure you have interpreted what’s going on correctly. Is there a second person in trouble whom you have yet to notice? Are the rest of the youngsters safe or are they in danger of succumbing to the same fate as their friend?

Lots to think about. Lots of decisions to make and very little time available in which to make them. Which is why whenever we enter the water, particularly open water we should do so with at least some rudimentary assessment of the likely dangers. We should remember that our own safety is paramount but also that we have a responsibility to those around us; both those that we know and those that we don’t. It’s worth remembering too that circumstances may change whilst we are in the water and that we must remain vigilant throughout. To anticipate every eventuality and formulate a response is sadly impractical. But to be constantly on the lookout for dangerous situations and to know approximately how you might react to them could be the difference between life and death.

 

Elba swim camps held by swim-arts

For most of us the Covid restrictions have curtailed our ability to travel to foreign climes and to be able to swim somewhere other than our local area. I suspect, therefore, that many of you will read the following account of swim camps held recently in Italy by our colleagues at swim-arts with undisguised jealousy!  And why not, the pictures are truly stunning,  Hopefully, it will not be too long before such wonderful experiences will be open to us all again. Meanwhile, sit back, relax and relish the account provided by Margarethe and Pavel…

 

Elba – a beautiful Italian island in the Mediterranean, close to the coast of Tuscany and only 60 kilometres away from Corsica. It was the perfect destination for the two swim-camps in September and October 2021 with its clear and warm waters and scenic coast. Both camps were run and organized by swim-arts, the SwimMastery swimming school based in Basel, Switzerland.

 

The experienced coaches Margarethe and Pavel, both open water swimmers and SwimMastery Advanced Coaches, worked on the stroke techniques for both groups with video analyses and supported the swimmers in the water and on land.

The first and the last day of each camp was dedicated to video-analyses so that the swimmers could work on their stroke technique in the days to come and could see in the end what progress they had made.

The first week was for open water newbies and so-called pleasure swimmers:

We did some nice OW practices, had pool-lessons in the salt-water hotel pool, went hiking and shopping – and enjoyed the delicious Italian meals which were served in local restaurants.

And we had stunning early morning swims in the calm bay of Cala di Mola, close to Porto Azzurro – with spectacular sunrises over the Mediterranean Sea.

And of course, we had some wonderful open water swims, not too long though, but ideal for the newbies, who learnt to swim longer distances in the open water, to cope with waves and wind as well as using a tow float.

But the reward was a choppy 1.5k swim to the twin Gemini islands with spectacular vistas, just off the coast of Innamorata, a small village in the south-eastern part of Elba.

All completed the swim with pride, some even had a second helping!

 

The second week was for the more experienced swimmers who were eager for longer distances.

So, we offered some swims between 3.5 and up to 10k along the coast. The swimmers were divided up into three groups; the fastest went with Pavel, the second group swam with Karin, also a very experienced OW marathon swimmer and a SwimMastery Advanced Coach, and the third group swam with Margarethe.

Two partners of swimmers escorted us on two kayaks.

For the very first swim, we started off the beach of Calanova, swimming back to the bay of Cala di Mola. The next swim started in Innamorata and had us swimming along the coast to the old mines of Capoliveri. One swim circled the small peninsula of Enfola on the north coast of Elba, where we had a nice stop in a grotto with mesmerising turquoise waters. On another day, we swam from the Remaiolo beach to an offshore crag, then to the Canello beach where we had a treasure hunt as a break with searching for precious stones like Malachite, Azurite, Chrysocolla and Turquoise.

The day before last, the wind came up and thus, we had a choppy farewell swim around the bay of Cala di Mola and Porto Azzurro.

We had two great and mostly sunny weeks with beautiful swims and very dedicated swimmers, excellent food and lots of fun!

Swimming in the rain, just swimming in the rain. Is it a glorious feeling?

For swimmers there are few feelings better than going for a dip on a warm sunny day with a gentle cooling breeze, the sun glinting off the surface of the clear blue water and the cry of the gulls echoing off the cliffs as they wheel overhead. And if that’s the norm for you then I hope you appreciate it. For many of us, conditions are often very different as we contend with a climate that regularly produces grey murky waters, howling gales and driving rain.

But should inclement weather stop us from swimming in open water? Well, not necessarily. Just because it’s damp and miserable, cold and drizzling, these usually aren’t in themselves, reasons not to take to the waters. In fact, a kind of perverse pleasure can often be derived from swimming in less than perfect conditions.

However, a note of caution needs to be sounded and to jump in with reckless abandon with no regard to the weather at all can invite disaster. A healthy respect for the state of the water and how it has been affected by the weather is always the prudent course. Plus there is always a need to keep an eye on the forecast so that you are not taken unawares by any changes that may happen.

So a little light drizzle probably isn’t going to make a great deal of difference for a river or sea swim. However, should this develop into something heavier then precautions may be wise. First, consider the visibility aspect both in terms of you being able to see the shore and also being able to see and be seen by other swimmers. If the rain becomes particularly heavy it may obscure landmarks and other points of reference which tell you exactly where you are. The sound of the rain hitting the water may also make it more difficult to attract attention if you get into difficulties or to be aware of the circumstances of your fellow swimmers.  Likewise, mist or fog can be equally disorientating.

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Increased volumes of water can alter the flow creating eddies and currents which are unfamiliar even in your most regular haunts. In extreme cases flooding may occur or currents become so strong that it becomes difficult to navigate your usual entry and exit points. New and unfamiliar hazards may present themselves in the form of obstructions that become difficult to avoid and floating debris. These are more likely to occur in rivers but at least there you have less chance of a current sweeping you out away from the shore and unable to return as may be the case in the sea.

Even once the rain has passed you need to be aware that run-off from surrounding land can lead to chemicals and other pollution entering the water for a period of up to 24 hours afterwards.

Heavy rain rarely occurs without strong winds and, whether accompanying a downpour or not, gales present their own challenges. Choppy waters will always create a higher degree of difficulty for breathing, particularly bi-lateral breathing, for even the most experienced swimmer. The deprivation and distortion of the efficient travel of sound become even greater and higher waves invariably mean that the danger of losing contact with the shore also increases as it becomes impossible to sight easily across the surface of the water.

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One should also consider the effect of a sudden drop in temperature caused by heavy rain and the wind-chill which may result from even a fairly moderate wind. Plus the impact of bad weather on any support vessels which may be accompanying you, especially relatively light craft such as canoes and kayaks. The pilots may become so focused on their own safety that they have very little time to consider your needs and welfare.

Should it start to hail, it will be at best unpleasant and, if conditions worsen, downright dangerous. Thunder and lightning are, fortunately, fairly rare occurrences but nevertheless, it should be remembered that lightning discharges along the surface with a power of between 10 to 100 million vaults, more than enough to cause a fatality. Even the sound as it discharges can reach up to 200 decibels which would result in a temporary or permanent loss of hearing.

Even heading indoors in bad weather is not without its risks! Lightning can still pose a threat if the pool is not adequately grounded and bonded and the potential for equipment failure leading to the back-up of foul water or sewage into the water is also increased!

So does all this doom and gloom mean that you should never swim in anything less than ideal conditions? Of course not. Thousands of people swim all year round come rain or shine and never encounter any problems. In fact, it could be argued that there is no such thing as good or bad weather when it comes to swimming.  Even when it’s bright and sunny one has to be aware of the danger of sunburn, the effects of which may be masked initially by the water and of the reduced visibility caused by the reflections of the rays on the water.

The message is merely one of caution. Weigh up the risks and benefits of any swim, taking all factors into consideration beforehand and be prepared to call it off or cut it short if necessary.

But by the same token, as long as safety is your watchword, you should enjoy the variety that different weather conditions can bring to your swim. Within reason, the additional challenges they present and the ways in which you need to adapt your stroke in order to counteract them can only ever improve your swimming and the enjoyment and satisfaction it brings you.

In other words, when it comes to swimming in the rain, you can be laughing at clouds, so dark up above. If the sun’s in your heart, you’re ready for love!

Ready, steady, wait. (Are you sure you’re ready ?)

Am I alone in having a list of things that I know should be part of the routine of my life but which, seem to get continually overlooked? Things like turning my mattress, reviewing my energy suppliers and flossing my teeth. And doing a proper warm-up before swimming. Please tell me it’s not just me!

If I’m doing other sports a warm-up is one of those things you do almost without thinking about it. Thus if I’m going for a run, I’ll have a short jog first or at the gym, I’ll have a short light session on a machine at a low setting before getting into the main session as a matter of course. But this rarely happens when I go swimming and, from what I observe, I’m not alone.

Why not? Perhaps, because they don’t come out of the water drenched in sweat, no matter how far you have swum folks don’t realise how much energy and work they have spent and, even with a good technique, how much potential strain there has been on the muscles. The fact that swimming is a low impact sport probably exacerbates this potentially complacent view.

But one ignores a proper warm-up at your peril, particularly with advancing years. It will go a long way to prevent injuries, improve performance, reduce the level of muscle tension and increase the range of motion possible. All vital stuff.

But if the case for doing a warm-up is inescapable this leads to the inevitable question of what one should actually do. Is it sufficient just to swing the arms vigorously for a while, stretch out the shoulders and quads, roll the neck a few times before leaping into the water? Or should the warm-up be a more structured affair?

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In order to answer that question it is important to differentiate between stretching and warming up. For some the terms are interchangeable but in reality they describe different activities and their functions are often very different. Care should be taken when stretching that the result is not more harm than good. Every body is different and there is no one size fits all ruling but as a general rule of thumb stretching should only be performed on muscles that are already warm. That is to say, they are best performed as part of a warm down at the end of a swim, not part of a warm-up at the start.

 

 

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Stretching can be broken down into several sub-categories. These include static stretches where a person holds a position for up to 30 seconds, passive stretches, where this is done by someone else, dynamic stretches, for example, controlled swinging of the arms and ballistic stretches, where the body is forced beyond the normal boundaries of operation. Other more complex types include active isolated stretches where the contraction of one muscle leads to the stretching of another, isometric stretching where a muscle is alternatively stretched and contracted and a combination of passive and isometric stretching known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Of all these variations only the controlled dynamic stretches are really suitable to be included in a warm-up and even then they should be used very judiciously. Save everything else for later, and, even then, take care not to overdo it.

So if stretching is largely to be avoided, then what should be included. The best advice seems to be to simply do what you plan to do in the main set but to do it at a lower tempo and to take rests throughout. Thus, in a pool, one might do six to eight lengths swimming at something like 75% and resting for several breaths at the end of each 25m. If you want to swing your arms a bit or rotate the neck gently before you get in, well OK, if you must. However, those won’t be movements you are performing when swimming (I hope!) so is there really much point in getting the body ready to perform them?

The best warm-ups will consist of movements likely to be performed later simply performed at a lower intensity to prepare the body for what is to come. After the swim and during the warm down (also not to be forgotten) is the time to, carefully, include any stretching you want to include. At all times ensure you are operating within the boundaries of your limitations.

That way you can remain safe and healthy ready to floss those teeth and turn your mattress!

A look back at the Tokyo Olympics

So finally a line has been drawn beneath the delayed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The closing ceremony was awash with the usual impressive pyrotechnics and entertainment ranging from the mind-numbingly dull, through the frankly bizarre to the jaw-droppingly spectacular and thus neatly encapsulated a Games which has been like no other. Or like any is likely to be again. The predictions of doom regarding the increased spread of Covid appear to have been largely unfounded and the result of the lack of spectators often resulted, not in an empty sterile environment, but a more intense atmosphere of sporting competition stripped bare of the usual razzmatazz which surrounds such events. And, was it just me, or did there seem to be a greater respect amongst athletes for the achievements of their rivals and a genuine joy in the success of others? Certainly one of the abiding images from Tokyo came at the end of the 200m women’s breaststroke final. Won by South African Tatjana Schoenmaker in a new World Record time of 2.18.95 she was embraced by compatriot Kaylene Corbett as well as Americans Lilly King and Annie Lazor whom she had beaten into the Silver and Bronze positions and the delight on the faces of all four women was beamed around the world.

The Tokyo Olympics saw its fair share of drama and determination, highs and heartaches many of which will live long in the memory. The aquatics centre was no exception to this rule with many outstanding performances. 880 athletes competed and 21 countries won at least one medal with the standout performance coming from the United States who brought home a total of thirty medals, eleven of them gold. The Australians took the second spot with nine golds amongst their twenty medals with the third most successful team being Great Britain and Northern Ireland with eight medals, half of them golds.

Established stars defended their records and their reputation for being at the very top of their game whilst rising stars emerged and are certain to dominate the sport for years to come. But there was still room for one or two shocks and heartwarming success stories.

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At 27 the US swimmer Kate Ledecky is hardly over the hill, indeed she is almost certain to feature prominently at the Paris Games in 2024, but compared to some of her youthful rivals she is becoming one of the more experienced performers in the pool. Tokyo represented a personal triumph for her as she won two golds, one of them in the new freestyle distance of 1,500m. These, added to the four she had already won at previous Games makes her the most decorated ever female Olympic swimmer.

However, 21-year-old Ariarne Titmus gave notice to the old guard that new talents were emerging as she beat Ledecky to gold in the 400m freestyle as she also bagged gold in the 200m event plus silver in the 800m and bronze as part of the 4x200m relay. Another 20-year-old Kaylee McKeown a backstroke specialist won gold in the 100m and 200m individual event as well as the 4x100m women and mixed relays.

Other notable Australian successes were recorded by near namesake Emma McKeon who added to the four medals she had won in Rio with a further seven in Japan. This matched the record for the number of medals won by a woman at a single games. Together these three formed the backbone of the Aussie dominance in the pool.

For the men, no-one came near the man constantly compared to Michael Phelps, the amazing Caeleb Dressel. With five golds he was a commanding presence whilst still remaining refreshingly modest and grounded during interviews. Undoubtedly his most impressive performance came whilst setting a new World Record of 49.45 in the 100m butterfly. At just 24 years old he still has plenty of time to overhaul Phelps’s record of 23 Olympic medals.

For the Brits, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Tom Dean all won two golds with Peaty and Guy also bringing home a silver medal. They were both winners of one of the new events for Tokyo, the mixed 100m relay along with Kathleen Dawson and Anna Hopkin.

Possibly the most unexpected victory however came in the 400m men’s freestyle event. Starting in lane 8, Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui was hardly known and certainly not one of the favourites for the title. But in a winning time of 3.43.36 he proved that dreams can indeed sometimes come true.

So as Japan’s rising sun becomes its setting sun we can reflect on some truly incredible performances, not only by those I have mentioned but by every athlete who has spent years training and toiling away from the spotlight for their brief moment to shine and to entertain us as they chase their target of glory. Roll on Paris, it’s going to be spectacular!

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