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Who Introduced Warmth and Buoyancy in the Triathlon World?

Despite all the recent controversy over technical swimsuits and the strong opposition from many coaches, swimmers, historians and administrators in the swimming world against the use of technical swimsuits and wetsuits in the open water, it is undeniable that wetsuits have enabled many hundreds of thousands of people to try - and enjoy - open water swimming.

History tells us that Dan Empfield, the founder of the highly popular website SlowTwitch, was responsible for this introduction of neoprene in the world of open water swimming, although his focus was on triathlons.

A highly successful entrepreneur and early leader in the world of triathlons, Dan also created the wetsuit and specialty triathlon bicycles in the late 1980's. His early wetsuits provided the buoyancy, warmth and protection that newcomers to the sport of triathlon sought and greatly appreciated. Suddenly and steadily, droves of individuals took to triathlons and the open water. As the decade of the 1990's ended, the total number of wetsuit-clad triathletes outnumbered the open water swimming traditionalists.

Fortunately and not surprising, the market continues to offer something to both ends of the neoprene spectrum with race directors worldwide providing both wetsuit and non-wetsuit divisions.

What Dan Empfield started, Colin Hill, the innovative and energetic race director of the Great Swims as only one example, has taken to whole new level as the sport of open water swimming expands its reach.

Colin's perspective is interesting and enlightening because he is a proven English Channel swimmer, doing a 10:30 English Channel crossing without a wetsuit - only hours after he managed a race where thousands enjoyed the warmth and buoyancy that wetsuits offer.

"Great Swim has adopted a very open view on what people wear at our events. For the masses, unless the location dictates (Royal Victoria Dock is compulsory), wetsuits are optional if it is over 15°C. I wanted to get away from forcing people into wearing something that don’t want to. The water temperature at our events is between 16° and 18°C."

"Regarding the elite swimmers, we want to encourage elite athletes to race in our events. Some pool swimmers just don’t like the cold, plus we have triathletes taking part. If wetsuits are optional, then all the elites have to wear a wetsuit due to the advantages with a wetsuit than a pair of trunks. This is fine, although some of the more seasoned open water swimmers aren’t too keen on wetsuits, they are happy over a one mile."

"In my triathlon days, I raced in Europe where wetsuits were banned as the water felt like a bath. So putting all thoughts of sponsors and what the swimmers, coaches and managers want is right. At what point should we say, its too warm, don’t wear a wetsuit? I’ve done a short session in a pool in a wetsuit, but I couldn’t last very long. So is 25°C the maximum [allowable] limit? Or do we just not have a maximum limit and let them boil for 17 minutes? We don’t want rules for the sake of it, but safety and well-being of athletes are my concerns."

But traditionalists need not be alarmed as the English Channel and all the world's major marathon swims remain true to their non-neoprene roots. Similarly, races like those produced by NYC Swim and many races in Australia outlaw anything remotely offering buoyancy, warmth or compression panels. Other races, like the RCP Tiburon Mile in San Francisco, have a combination of rules that accommodate both the wetsuit- and non-wetsuit-clad athlete.

So whether you enjoy the challenge of open water swimming in a wetsuit or naked (i.e., without a wetsuit), there is a competition for you.

But Dan's original vision - keeping people warm and buoyant - was quickly accepted in the triathlon world and has gradually extended its reach to the vast world of the open water. And according to the official lore on American television (on the popular TV show called Jeopardy), Dan is the answer.

Copyright © 2010 by WOWSA

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