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How do you plan for and launch a new open water event?

Becoming a race director has been on my bucket list ever since I started swimming open water. I've had some incredible RD influences in my life (most notably Phil White of Kingdom Games). I was offered the opportunity to become an event safety director in 2022 for the Xterra Hagg Lake Triathlon, and it was an eye-opening experience. I had previously put on swim meets, open water swim clinics, and non-swimming fundraising events, but I wasn't prepared for the chaos that was swim event coordination, and learned a hecking lot from the Xterra experience (example: I had to explain why lifeguards needed floatation tubes to multiple people).


Last year, I was asked if I'd be interested in planning and directing a new event in Portland. Bob Bruce and Tim Waud had already found a location and had started putting together an event plan, which was ever so helpful as I stepped into the event director role.


Despite having a general plan, there were (and continue to be) a ton of steps to getting this swim approved by numerous organizations, which I would equate to unraveling hot ramen. The noodle needs some help getting out of the tangle, and then it splashes around a bit, affecting everything in the bowl, and getting your face a little smudged.


I started with contacting the Parks & Recreation department of local government, thinking the land planned for the swim was owned by the city. As it turns out, they said it wasn't their property, and transferred me to the Economic Development Manager. After a lot of telephone tag, I finally spoke to him in person, and he wasn't thrilled about the event, actually saying he wouldn't support it because "an open water swim wouldn't generate a positive ROI for the Economic Development of the city." I convinced him to let me share my documentation by email, and he said he'd be willing to read through it, but to not get my hopes up.


A week later, he called me back and said he would back the event, but that the land was owned by Urban Development, so the process of getting approval to use the land was very different than just renting out a park space. We're still in the process of drafting a contract for the land use at the time I write this blog post.


The most critical factor to the folks I've spoken to in local government has been (drumroll) PARKING. I was so surprised that it's been the focus of 99% of our conversations (the other 1% being liability coverage). What I've learned from this entire experience is to submit a parking plan in combination with an overall event proposal to smooth things over with whoever you're working with.


I've also received some interesting boundaries in negotiating the contract for this event. I have to use only local businesses as vendors, even for things like portable toilet. No event participants or volunteers can park on Park property, which is the parking lot up the street. I was told that if even 1 car erroneously parked in the other parking lot, the city would pull my permit and shut the event down faster than I could put on a swim cap (which is pretty fast).


Although I'm not done with the permitting process, I think we're getting close enough that I'm estimating opening up event registration on or before February 1st, so sit tight for details coming soon!


Steps to planning an open water event:

  1. Find a location and determine how many participants it can hold

  2. Figure out how to park the total number of cars of participants + volunteers/staff

  3. Figure out who owns the land you plan to use and park on

  4. Prepare event documentation (Race Info & Entry doc for USMS, Parking plan, Event safety plan) to propose to local government

  5. Start calling all the local government offices you may need to seek approval from (Parks & Rec, Public Works, Economic Development Office, etc.)

  6. Get a business license through the local government (if required; the office I'm working with requires all events to have a temporary business license or be hosted by a local business)

  7. Work with your local USMS human to make sure your documents and plan make sense

  8. Figure out how you'll register swimmers and volunteers (I'm going to use Club Assistant this year, and see how that goes, but I've also used RaceEntry, Race Roster, Run Sign Up, and others in the past)

  9. Figure out how many volunteers you'll need to make the event possible

  10. Figure out how much you'll need to charge for registration to make the event possible and create a budget

  11. Start getting quotes from any vendors you'll need to book

  12. Figure out how you'll insure the event

  13. Figure out how you'll collect funds (if applicable)

  14. Apply for USMS Sanction (https://www.usms.org/volunteer-central/guide-to-local-operations/event-management/open-water-event-management & https://www.usms.org/comp/sanction/request.php)

  15. Create an online presence to advertise your event

  16. Test out registration, merchandise, payment methods, etc.

  17. Get folks registered!




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