The Open Water Development Committee at the 2013 USA Swimming Convention made a small, but very interesting rule change to the qualification standards for 2015 nationals: the winner of each of the 4 Zone Open Water 5k races will qualify for the 2015 National Open Water 5k race. This might seem small, only 4 athletes will receive berths as a result of this, but the implications on the open water community could be profound. Previous qualifying standards were based on either 1500m free pool times, or placement in a FINA World Cup event. We had heard about this soon after the fall convention from H2Okie Aquatic head coach Scott Baldwin, but because it is considered a "qualifying standard change" it didn't get much press. So, we followed up, and here is the official confirmation from USA Swimming Open Water Program Manager Bryce Elser:
This is official and it will apply to 2015 Nats. The Zone Champion in the event of 5km or greater will gain automatic qualification to the 2015 5k OW Nats. This was approved by OW Development Committee at the 2013 Convention and will be applied to the time standards for 2015. This is only a time standard change so the only documentation that there will be on the 2015 OW National Time Standard document.
This is a fantastic development for many reasons, a couple of which are as follows:
- It places open water performance as at least as important as pool performance for determining an athletes merits in open water racing.
- It gives a distance-specific qualifying opportunity. With the pool standards we were using a persons performance in a 14-16 minute race was used to predict their performance for a 50-60 minute race. Innate abilities, not to mention training can make that prediction very inaccurate, potentially eliminating athletes who are better trained, or physiologically better suited to the race.
- It gives aspiring open water athletes an incentive to train for the race that they wish to qualify for -- i.e., train for the 5k to race the 5k, not train for the 1500 to get a chance to race for the 5k.
- It offers the only opportunities to qualify in an open water race in the US, since all World Cup Open Water events in 2014 are outside of the United States.
While only 4 will qualify, how many athletes will set their sights on the coveted spot in their Zone race? We could very well see a surge in number of participants vying for this spot, and we also may see an increase in the level of preparation of the athletes that attend. Whatever other outcomes, one can be certain: 4 athletes will earn a spot at 5k open water nationals as a result of winning the zones race.