Why can't we be friends?

I have just returned from the XII World Championships of Winter Swimming held in Bled, Slovenia, and I cannot help but feel bittersweet about the experience. Everything there was positive, including the excellent venue, the increasing level of the competitors, and especially the good friends you make along the way. However, on the negative side, I still cannot comprehend how such a tiny sport can have two organizations (IISA, IWSA) that put together parallel events with different set of rules.

How tiny is the sport, you ask? The stats are actually mind-blowing. It is estimated that 20% and 3% of the world population regularly exercises and swims, respectively (these are US estimates, so the global % are probably smaller). Of those, there are about 100,000 swimmers that have completed a race in the open waters (guesstimate) and less than 20,000 “official” marathon swimmers. Some of them (and some others) have taken the challenge into the ice, and today there are 2,500 cold-loving swimmers, 687 of whom have completed an Ice KM or an Ice Mile. This is one in every 11.3 million people!

Not too many people to be divided at the top

Open water swimming is regulated by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) at professional level, while the amateur sport is managed by the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) and the Marathon Swimmers Federation (MSF), both based out of California, USA. While MSF is generally focused on wetsuit-less swims of 10K or more, WOWSA tends to be more inclusive, with the goal of increasing the global awareness and passion for the sport regardless of the distance and tools. OWS is so diverse (lakes, oceans, rivers) and dependent on the conditions you encounter, so there are no world records and the three organizations seem to co-exist pretty well.

Things are different when it comes to competitive swimming in cold waters though. In 2000, a group of friends came together in Finland and established the International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA), and started celebrating World Cups every two years, first in Helsinki, then in other European cities. IWSA’s rules define three different conditions: “cold water” between 41F-48F (5C-9C), with events up to 1,000 meters long, “freezing water” between 36F-41F (2C-5C), with events up to 450 meters long, and “ice water” between 28F-36F (-2C-2C), with events up to 200 meters long only.

Eight years later, a group of South Africans had the vision of setting up a more extreme group, the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), which would stick to water under 41F (5C) and focus on two main distances: the Ice Kilometer (competitive) and the Ice Mile (non-competitive). In 2015, the IISA also started hosting a biennial World Championship, for the Ice KM as well as shorter distances. The IISA has perhaps been the one pushing harder for the sport to become professional, in talks with FINA and IOC.

Fast forward to 2020. Both organizations continue to organize alternate World Championships (i.e. if IWSA holds it in 2016, 2018, 2020; IISA does it in 2017, 2019, 2021) and World Cups, offering the same events. IWSA continues to sell it is “safer” and does not allegedly hosts the 1,000 meters event under 5C, nor does support Ice Mile efforts; while IISA sticks to the frozen pool for the sake of standardization, although it mixes LCM and SCM times. Both organizations keep separate age groups, national chapters and wait for it, “world records”. This would be like FINA, LEN and ISL maintaining different world records for pool swimming.

A sport aiming to be professional cannot afford this much politics. I continuously try to get visibility for ice swimming with both Spanish and American institutions, sponsors and press and it is so hard to explain why there are two different bodies that cannot agree on a single set of rules and events. We are seeing an increasing number of younger and faster kids from all continents getting into the sport without having necessarily transitioned through the open waters, or through a 10-year period of no training after college; and there is certain momentum with the international press covering our events, too. There will be no better time than now to come together as a single organization.

Now that I've swum with both IWSA and IISA, I deeply respect and appreciate what they’ve done for the sport, but I believe that it is time to bury the hatchet, minimize the politics and pursue professionalism – and Olympism – together. I know most of my fellow cold-loving swimmers will agree with me.

One Community. One Love. One Sport.