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Gender Inclusivity in Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming has grown in popularity over the years, drawing athletes from diverse backgrounds and identities. However, amid the waves and currents of this aquatic sport, a different kind of current flows—a debate surrounding gender inclusivity. After visiting home for a few days (Indiana) and hearing my parents' views on this (and many other topics), I would like to be very clear on where Wild Waters LLC and I stand regarding inclusivity in swimming.


I started Wild Waters because I truly believe that anyone can swim. But exclusionary practices like forcing binary gender categories mean that that trans, non-binary, and intersex swimmers may not want to. Our wild waters should be places where people go to feel at peace, not feel excluded.


TLDR: I want to make the open water swimming community as inclusive as possible because trans, intersex, and non-binary participants deserve to be included and respected. There is no place for discrimination or hate in our sport.


In December, I began obtaining permits and applying for USMS sanction for the Clackamas Cove Cruise Swim (www.clackamascoveswim.com), attempting to bring more open water event opportunities to Oregon. I have ideas for a few other swims in the future, but this is the first one I'm rolling out to learn race directing and best practices. Because the event was thought up by two Oregon Masters Swimming leaders, I was asked to go through the standard USMS sanction process. US Masters Swimming has a very strict set of guidelines for putting on events, which hinges on timing and scoring based on gendered categories. I'm required to ask participants their gender during registration, and I'm limited to only 2 answer choices: male and female. The result is that awards will be presented by swim suit category + age + gender. For example: "Top finisher in the women's 18-24 age group for wetsuits."


I recognize that the 2 gender categories are 1) required and defined by USMS and other similar organizations and 2) ranking by gender is how it's historically been done for most sports. Almost every single swimming event I've ever participated in has been distinctly separated, and I was even only allowed to train in the girl's swim team practices when I was growing up. The "open" event categories have emerged more recently, and these types of events (where the scoring is based on something other than gender) are not universally offered. The first time I witnessed an "open" meet was after I moved to Oregon. Most open water events I've participated in have been scored by male/female, with the exception being Phil White's Kingdom Swim Winter Swimming Festival in early 2024. Because the Winter Swim is not a USMS sanctioned event, Phil was able to expand the participant categories to include trans, non-binary, and para groups.


Unfortunately, many US-based swimming events rely on USMS for insurance and publicity, and USMS does not seem to be interested in opening up its gender categories by rewriting its laws. As a result, I, as a race director and swimming community member, feel that I'm exacerbating the exclusionary status quo.


I'm still trying to figure out how to balance the opposing interests of a gender-inclusive event versus a USMS sanctioned event. If anyone has suggestions, I'm all ears. My goal is to embrace a culture of diversity and inclusion within the open water swimming community to create a supportive and empowering environment for athletes of all gender identities.


I also recognize this isn't a quick answer, and I may need to wait until hosting an event in 2025 when I may no longer need USMS sanction/support. In the meantime, I'm going to be researching and considering swimwear, whether to have any type of gender categories at all, and how to be able to offer safe swim spaces.


If you'd like to support the queer swimming community, consider buying one of the Wild Waters PRIDE collection swim caps: https://www.swimwildwaters.com/category/swim-caps. $5 from each cap purchase is donated to The Trevor Project and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute (split evenly).



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laddspam
Mar 30

Until recently swim caps had to be of the "one size fits all" variety although that blatantly discriminated against African-American hair styles, and those of us with long hair. That changed only after a lot of noise, including pointing out that the "whiteness" of the sport was something organizers should be embarrassed about. This can be made to apply to gender inclusiveness too, if organizers like you continue to rattle the cages and awareness is constantly raised by swimmers. The more swimmers ask about inclusion the better. Glad you are doing so.

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